chain reaction

chain reaction

chain reaction, self-sustaining reaction that, once started, continues without further outside influence. Proper conditions for a chain reaction depend not only on various external factors, such as temperature, but also on the quantity and shape of the substance undergoing the reaction. A chain reaction can be of various types, but nuclear chain reactions are the best known. A line of dominoes falling after the first one has been pushed is an example of a mechanical chain reaction; a pile of wood burning after it has been kindled is an example of a chemical chain reaction. In the latter case each piece of wood, as it burns, must release enough heat to raise nearby pieces to the kindling point. The wood, therefore, must be piled close enough together so that not too much heat is lost to the surrounding air. The conditions for a nuclear chain reaction can be understood by analogy. In the case of the fission of a nucleus, the reaction is begun by the absorption of a slow neutron. Each fission produces two or three fast neutrons. In order to sustain a chain reaction, a sample must be large enough to slow the neutrons so that one can be captured by another nucleus and produce a second fission. The sample must also be compact to prevent neutrons from escaping. The minimum quantity of a fissionable material necessary to sustain a nuclear chain reaction is called the critical mass. In a nuclear fission bomb, a chain reaction is started by forcing together two or more samples of fissionable material, each of less than critical mass, to form one sample of supercritical mass. The number of subsequent fissions produced by a single fission is always greater than one. The total number of fissions increases rapidly (exponentially) with time. In a fission reactor, the number of subsequent fissions for each fission must be exactly one. If the rate is less, the chain reaction will stop; if greater, it will soon grow out of control. In one type of fission reactor, a combination of fuel rods and control rods is moved in or out of a solid block of moderating material to control the reaction rate. In another type of reactor, the temperature of a liquid moderator controls the reaction. See also nuclear energy; nuclear reactor.

Laboratory technique used to make numerous copies of specific DNA segments quickly and accurately. These are needed for various experiments and procedures in molecular biology, forensic analysis (DNA fingerprinting), evolutionary biology (to amplify DNA fragments found in ancient specimens), and medicine (to diagnose genetic disease or detect low viral counts). Invented by Kary Mullis, PCR requires a DNA template (as little as one molecule) to copy, nucleotides to build the copies, and the enzyme DNA polymerase to catalyze the formation of bonds between the nucleotide monomers. Each three-step cycle (separating the two strands of the DNA double helix, marking the ends of the segment to be copied, and catalyzing the formation of bonds), which takes only minutes to complete, doubles the number of DNA strands present in the reaction medium. Repetition of this cycle many times results in an exponential increase in the amount of DNA.

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Process yielding products that initiate further processes of the same kind. Nuclear chain reactions are a series of nuclear fissions initiated by neutrons produced in a preceding fission. A critical mass, large enough to allow more than one fission-produced neutron to be captured, is necessary for the chain reaction to be self-sustaining. Uncontrolled chain reactions, as in an atomic bomb, occur when large numbers of neutrons are present and the reactions multiply very quickly. Nuclear reactors control their reactions through the careful distribution of the fissionable material and insertion of neutron-absorbing materials.

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A chain reaction is a sequence of reactions where a reactive product or by-product causes additional reactions to take place. It is a self-amplifying chain of events.

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