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I understand that the United States switched from atomic energy to hydrogen energy, but how much power does it take to split an atom? 

Asked by: Caleb Shafer
School: Binghamton High School
Grade: 9
Teacher: Jill Browne
Hobbies/Interests: Writing music, rapping, reading, writing short stories 
Career Interest: Rapper


Answer from Wayne Jones

Professor of Inorganic and Materials Chemistry

Note: Students from the Binghamton University Scholars Technology and Impact of Solar Energy class assisted Professor Jones with this question.   

Everything in the world is made of atoms, which are tiny bundles of particles held together by a lot of force. Most of these particles are located in a small space in the center of the atom called the nucleus. Nuclear fission shoots a particle at the nucleus, splitting it and releasing energy. It takes a lot of energy to split atoms. For example, the energy necessary to split one gram of uranium atoms is equal to the energy you get from eating over 16,000 chicken nuggets, though they release much more in return. A piece of uranium the size of three sugar cubes could theoretically power the United States for one day.

Hydrogen is another source of power, but the U.S. is not switching to hydrogen over nuclear. Neither hydrogen nor nuclear is America’s main source of energy. America gets most of its energy from burning fossil fuels, which are natural materials made from the remains of plants and animals. Of these fossil fuels, natural gas, coal and oil are the most used. Together, those sources provide 84 percent of our energy, but the supply is dropping quickly!

As nonrenewable energy sources decline, renewable energy sources are becoming more accessible for consumers. Renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, and geothermal energy, are expected to play large roles in the next 20-30 years. By 2050, the Department of Energy predicts renewable energy will make up 80 percent of all the energy usage in the U.S.

One renewable energy source is the Sun. Solar panels capture sunlight, generating heat or electricity that can power our homes. This method is highly dependable because the Sun will not burn out for about 5.4 billion years. Another renewable energy source is wind. When the wind blows, it spins the blades of a wind turbine, generating electricity.

To make sure we have a clean environment and enough energy for everyone to be comfortable, two things must happen. First, we need to transition to more sustainable sources, and second, we have to do our part by conserving energy at home.

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Last Updated: 9/25/14