Introduction: Hydrogen Bomb vs Atom Bomb
Russian officials have made several vague and not-so-subtle threats about using nuclear weapons in the past couple years. This may have made some people wonder what the difference is between an atomic bomb and a modern hydrogen bomb, like the ones Russia's Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) carry.
From a tactical standpoint, the most important difference is how destructive they can be. Even though atomic bombs can do much damage, they pale in comparison to hydrogen bombs.
Let’s discuss it in more depth.
Most of us have heard the terms atom bomb, atomic bomb, nuclear weapon, hydrogen bomb, thermonuclear weapon, and neutron bomb. But what, exactly, are these? These weapon technologies utilize a process called nuclear fission.
Nuclear fission is, in the simplest terms, the process of breaking up a large atom into multiple smaller ones. Most atomic bombs do this by sending a neutron into the nucleus of an isotope of uranium-235 (235U) or plutonium-239 (239Pu). When these isotopes break apart, they give off a lot of heat and gamma radiation.
In some weapons, the splitting also sends out two or more neutrons, which hit other isotopes and cause them to split, starting a chain reaction until every bit of fissionable material is used up. The huge explosion we've seen in videos of atomic tests is caused by this chain of fission reactions that keeps going without stopping.
The Atom Bomb
The first nuclear weapons were atom bombs, which the United States and its allies made during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project program. Atom bombs are also called atomic bombs, nuclear bombs or nuclear weapons. These terms are often used interchangeably. This technology utilizes the fission (splitting) of either Uranium-235 or Plutonium-239.
There have been only two atomic bombs used in warfare. The first nuclear weapon used in warfare was the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. This bomb was a gun-type nuclear weapon utilizing the fission of Uranium-235. The second of the only two nuclear weapons ever used was detonated over the Japanese city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. This was an implosion-type nuclear weapon, utilizing the fission of Plutonium-239.
The detonation of these atom bombs released the energy equivalent to the detonation of 15 and 21 kilotons of TNT, respectively.
15,000 tons of TNT
21,000 tons of TNT
The atomic bomb was the first step toward development of hydrogen bomb.
The Hydrogen Bomb
Hydrogen bombs are also known as Thermonuclear bombs and Thermonuclear weapons. Like the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb utilizes fission to release a significant amount of energy. Unlike the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb also utilizes a process known as fusion. Fusion is the act of combining multiple smaller atoms into a single larger atom. Fission is breaking apart a large atom into two or smaller ones.
Fusion is the act of combining multiple smaller atoms into a single larger atom. Fission is breaking apart a large atom into two or smaller ones.
Thermonuclear weapons combine fission with fusion, resulting in exponential destructive power.
The RS-28 Sarmat II, Russia's newest intercontinental ballistic missile, has an explosive yield of 50 megatons of TNT.
50,000,000 tons TNT
People often say that hydrogen bombs have more destructive power than atomic bombs because they use fusion in addition to fission. Even though this is technically accurate, it is not fusion itself that delivers an exponential release of energy. Rather, it is this combination of fusion and fission that magnifies the energy released from fission itself.
In a hydrogen bomb, the first stage of detonation is called the primary stage. In the primary stage the hydrogen bomb explodes like any other bomb. This primary explosion exposed the fissionable Uranium-235 in the weapon core, which starts a chain reaction just like that of an atomic bomb. This atomic bomb inside the hydrogen bomb is deflected and sent into to a second chamber filled with Lithium-6 deuteride (LH or 6L2H). This is the secondary stage.
By putting the destructive power of an atomic bomb into the chamber with Lithium-6 deuteride, the Lithium-6 is exposed to millions of degrees of heat and intense pressure. This is enough to start the process of fusion.
At this stage, the Lithium chamber is blown apart by the energy released by fusion. This is when things start to get intense. When the neutrons created by fusion hit the uranium chamber, they split so many uranium atoms it causes multiple runaway fission explosions. This reaction is responsible for most of the destructive power of the hydrogen bomb.
So, a hydrogen bomb begins with a normal explosion that causes fission. This fission power is sent to a chamber full of uranium to make fusion, which then explodes and starts many more fission reactions.
The Neutron Bomb
Technically speaking, a nuclear bomb is similar to a small thermonuclear weapon but doesn't have the second stage's uranium casing. So, when a normal bomb goes off, it starts a fission reaction that fills the second stage with deuterium and tritium. Without the uranium shell hit, nuclear fusion does not cause fission reactions to happen afterward.
The result is a much smaller explosion, maybe only a few hundred meters wide, but a huge amount of neutron and gamma radiation is released. The plan was to employ these weapons against enemy armor and infantry formations. There is a chance that nearby cities will be affected by the radiation, but they won't be destroyed.