The Sun, nuclear reactors, and the interior of the Earth, all have “nuclear reactions” as the source of their energy, that is, reactions that involve changes in the structure of the nuclei of atoms. In the Sun, hydrogen nuclei fuse (combine) together to make helium nuclei, in a process called fusion, which releases energy. In a nuclear reactor, or in the interior of the Earth, Uranium nuclei (and certain other heavy elements in the Earth’s interior) split apart, in a process called fission. If this didn’t happen, the Earth’s interior would have long gone cold! The energy released by fission and fusion is not just a product of the potential energy released by rearranging the nuclei. In fact, in both cases, fusion or fission, some of the matter making up the nuclei is actually converted into energy. How can this be? The answer is that matter itself is a form of energy! This concept involves one of the most famous formula’s in physics, the formula,
This formula was discovered by Einstein as part of his “Theory of Special Relativity”. In simple words, this formula means:
The energy intrinsically stored in a piece of matter at rest equals its mass times the speed of light squared.
When we plug numbers in this equation, we find that there is actually an incredibly huge amount of energy stored in even little pieces of matter (the speed of light squared is a very very large number!). For example, it would cost more than a million dollars to buy the energy stored intrinsically stored in a single penny at our current (relatively cheap!) electricity rates. To get some feeling for how much energy is really there, consider that nuclear weapons only release a small fraction of the “intrinsic” energy of their components.