Vol.3, No.4, 323-327 (2011) Natural Science
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. OPEN ACCESS
A desktop-computer simulation for exploring the
fission barrier
Bruce Cameron Reed
Department of Physics Alma College, Alma, USA; reed@alma.edu
Received 9 March 2011; revised 24 March 2011; accepted 1 April 2011.
A model of a fissioning nucleus that splits sym-
metrically both axially and equatorially is used
to show how one can predict the presence of a
fission barrier of several tens of MeV for nu-
clides of mass number A ~ 90 and of ~ 10 MeV
for elements such as uranium. While the present
model sacrifices some physical realism for the
sake of analytic and programming simplicity, it
does reproduce the general behavior of the run
of fission barrier energy as a function of mass
number as revealed by much more sophisti-
cated models. Its intuitive appeal and tractability
make it appropriate for presentation in a stu-
dent-level “Modern Physics” class.
Keywords: Nuclear Fission; Fission Barrier;
Numerical Simulation
In discussions of the theory of nuclear fission in un-
dergraduate texts, one learns that there are two key as-
pects of the energetics of that phenomenon: 1) That there
exists a limit (Z2/A)lim ~ 50 beyond which nuclei are un-
stable against spontaneous fission (Z is the atomic num-
ber and A the mass number), and 2) That whether or not
a nucleus will fission upon absorbing a neutron depends
on whether or not the binding energy so released ex-
ceeds a certain fission barrier. This is also known as the
activation energy or the threshold energy. In older texts,
such discussions were often accompanied by schematic
plots of energy versus fission-product separation which
showed the barrier as a rise of a few MeV over which
the compound nucleus had to ‘leap’ before fissioning,
with the fission products repelling each other and then
‘sliding down’ the Coulomb potential to a final system
energy some 200 MeV lower than the initial spherical
configuration [1]. The maximum system energy in these
illustrations is usually indicated as occurring right at the
moment of fission. The fission barrier is a profoundly
important business. In the case of uranium, its value
(about 6 MeV) amounts to about 1 MeV less than the
binding energy released when a nucleus of 235U absorbs
a neutron, but is about 1.5 MeV greater than that in the
case of 238U. This difference is sufficient to render the
lighter isotope fissile by neutrons of any kinetic energy
whereas 238U can only be disrupted by those of energy ~
1.5 MeV or greater.
These fundamental concepts date from a landmark
paper published by Niels Bohr and John Wheeler (B&W)
in 1939 wherein they modeled nuclei as liquid drops [2].
Expressing the shape of a deformed nucleus as a sum of
Legendre polynomials configured to conserve volume,
they found that the essential aspects of fission could be
explained by considering the total energy of a nucleus to
be the sum of a surface energy US proportional its sur-
face area plus an electrostatic contribution UC arising
from the Coulombic inter-potentials of the protons.
B&W were able to derive a general expression for
(Z2/A)lim of the form (Z2/A)lim = 2(aS /aC), where aS and aC
are surface and Coulomb energy parameters whose val-
ues are about 18 MeV and 0.72 MeV, respectively.
B&W’s algebra involved complicated expansions and
integrals of Legendre polynomials and so their work is
usually considered to be far too complex for presentation
to undergraduates. Many texts skirt the detailed calcula-
tions by presenting simplified partial derivations of the
Z2/A limit by modeling nuclei as ellipsoids and invoking
an expression for the self-potential of such a geometry
that is itself not trivially derived [3]. The full algebra of
the (Z2/A)lim calculation can be found in a paper recently
published by this author [4]. Through yet more involved
calculations, Bohr and Wheeler also developed an ex-
pression for the barrier height, but this applied only for
cases where the nuclear deformation represented a small
departure form sphericity. In principle, to determine a
barrier energy one needs to examine all possible ‘defor-
mation trajectories’ between an initial spherical con-
figuration and a final two-product configuration and then
isolate the minimum excitation energy.
B. C. Reed / Natural Science 3 (2011) 323-327
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. OPEN ACCESS
With the rapid development of electronic computers
in the postwar era, numerical simulations naturally came
to the fore, and models of fissioning nuclei involving up
to tenth-order polynomials were being published as early
as 1947 [5]. The modeling of nuclear masses and barrier
energies is now a very complex field of work, where
shell effects, pairing corrections, energy levels, and de-
formation and mass asymmetries all play roles. For ex-
ample, in a well-known paper, Myers and Swiatecki de-
veloped a seven-parameter model for nuclear masses [6].
In addition to the usual Coulomb and surface energies,
they included a volume-energy term dependent on A, a
parity term, and three parameters for describing shell
effects; only the Coulomb and surface terms are incor-
porated in the present simple model.
As a result of such complexities, many texts simply
skip over the details of barrier energetics. It would thus
appear that a model that could demonstrate the presence
of the fission barrier while being tractable at an under-
graduate level would be a useful contribution to physics
pedagogy. The purpose of the present paper is to develop
a straightforward numerical integration scheme for in-
vestigating the fission barrier. This scheme is based on a
simplified model of fission where the nucleus divides
symmetrically into two identical daughter products. In
reality, symmetric fission is actually quite uncommon;
the most likely mass ratio for the products is about 1.6.
However, while a symmetric model does represent some
sacrifice of physical reality, it does possess one very
important redeeming feature: the shape of the nucleus
can be modeled in such a way that its radius of curvature
is never discontinuous. The significance of this can be
appreciated on recalling that nuclear physicists model
surface energies in a manner akin to describing surface
tension: a discontinuous curvature would correspond to
an infinite force. Despite the simplified approach
adopted here, the model proves to give results in fairly
respectable agreement with much more sophisticated
analyses and so serves its educational purpose.
The model is developed in section 2 below. Section 3
describes the development and results of computer pro-
grams written to simulate the fission process.
Suppose that our nucleus begins as a sphere of radius
RO. As a consequence of some disturbance, it begins to
distort in a manner that is at all times both axially and
equatorially symmetric, as illustrated in Figure 1. It is
assumed that, at any moment, the ends of the distorted
nucleus can be modeled as spheres of radius R whose
centers are separated by distance 2d and which are con-
nected by an equatorial ‘neck’. The outer edge of the
neck is taken to be defined by a circular arc of radius R
Figure 1. Model of symmetric fission process.
which is part of a circle that just tangentially touches the
spheres which constitute the product nuclei; imagine
rotating the figure around the central vertical axis. As
described above, modeling the fission process in this
way allows us to avoid introducing any curvature dis-
continuities into the shape of the distorted surface; this
would be very difficult to do if the process were not both
axially and equatorially symmetric. As the spheres move
apart, R must decrease to conserve nuclear volume as
nuclei are considered to be incompressible fluids. The
radius of the neck will decrease and eventually reach
zero, at which point the teardrop-shaped products will
break contact and fly apart due to mutual repulsion. A
convenient coordinate for parameterizing the process is
the angle θ, which is measured counterclockwise from
the polar axis to a line joining the centers of the upper
sphere and the imaginary one that defines the equatorial
neck. θ decreases from π/2 at the start of the process to
π/6 at the moment of fission.
2.1. Volume and Surface Areas; Volume
The volume of the partially-fissioned nucleus is given
by [7]
17sin cos2cos
 
 
. (2)
B. C. Reed / Natural Science 3 (2011) 323-327
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. OPEN ACCESS
Demanding conservation of volume, Eqs.1 and 2 give
the radius R in terms of the initial radius RO and θ as
. (3)
The center-to-center separation of the spheres at any
moment is
 
. (4)
The surface area S of the distorted nucleus is given by
 
SR f
, (5)
 
. (6)
At the moment when the equatorial neck has shrunk to
zero radius (θ= π/6), the radii of the spherical caps is
332 π
issO O
. (7)
The separation of the centers at this time will be
22 32.737
iss fissO
dR R, and the full height of the
distorted nucleus will be 2Rfiss + 2dfiss ~ 4.317RO.
2.2. Surface Energy
The surface energy of the deformed nucleus is as-
sumed to be directly proportional to its surface area S at
any moment. To formulate this in terms of atomic and
mass numbers, it is helpful to invoke the empirical result
that nuclear radii behave as R ~ aoA1/3, with ao ~ 1.2 fm.
Invoking this result along with Eqs.3, 5, and 6 gives the
surface area as
, (8)
 
 . (9)
is purely a function of the emergence angle θ. If we
introduce as the value of the conversion factor from
surface area to energy in MeV, the product 2
the surface energy parameter aS ~ 18 MeV discussed in
the Introduction above. We can then write the surface
energy as
UaA. (MeV) (10)
2.3. Coulomb Energy
The Coulomb energy of the deformed nucleus of Fig-
ure 1 is determined by direct numerical integration: The
fissioning nucleus is imagined to be situated within a
lattice of volume elements, and the self-energy is com-
puted by adding up the Coulomb energies of all pairs of
elements that find themselves within the nucleus. While
this procedure is conceptually straightforward, there are
various practical issues to deal with, such as ensuring
that the number of cells is sufficiently large to obtain
reasonable accuracy without rendering the computation
prohibitively time-consuming, taking advantage of the
axial symmetry of the situation to minimize the number
of computations, and adopting a convenient system of
It was decided to imagine surrounding the configura-
tion of Figure 1 with a cylindrical lattice of N cells
comprising NZ vertical layers, each of which consists of
NR radial rings and N
angular wedges: ZR
The lattice remains of constant volume throughout the
integration (as do the individual cells), and is set to have
a radius equal to that of the initial undeformed nucleus
(RO) and a height just great enough to accommodate the
just-fissioned system, h = βRO, where β is the factor
4.317 … discussed just after Eq.7. The bottom of the
lower sphere is taken at every step in the calculation to
be sitting at (x, y) = (0, 0). RO is used as the unit of dis-
tance for the numerical integration. The radial rings are
set up to become thinner with increasing radius in order
that all cells are of the same volume; the radius of the
i’th ring (in units of RO) is given by
Suppose that the nucleus contains Z protons. Its
charge density will be 3
eZ R
, and, from the
radius, height, and number of cells in the cylinder as
described above, the charge contained in a cell that lies
within the nucleus will be Q = 3eZβ/4 N. The Coulomb
potential between any two ‘occupied’ cells (i, j) sepa-
rated by distance rij will be 4π
ij oij
QQ r
. On again
setting RO = ao A
1/3, writing rij = RO dij, and summing
over all pairs of cells, the total Coulomb potential energy
emerges as
 
 
 , (11)
where aC is the Bohr-Wheeler Coulomb energy parame-
0.72 MeV
20 π
, (12)
and where
iji ij
 , (13)
where δi = 1 if cell i lies within the nucleus, and zero if it
does not. Like S
, C
is purely a function of the
emergence angle θ. Combining Eqs.10 -13, the total
(surface + Coulomb) configuration energy of the nucleus
B. C. Reed / Natural Science 3 (2011) 323-327
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. OPEN ACCESS
23 15
Total SSC
 
 
 
 
. (14)
With aS = 18 MeV and ao = 1.2 fm, 15aC/16aS ~ 0.0375.
These values are assumed in what follows.
Two double-precision FORTRAN programs, ANGLE
and FISSION, have been developed to carry out the cal-
culations described above. Since the geometry of the
process depends only on the emergence angle θ, it is
convenient to have one program (ANGLE) generate a
tabulation of R, d, and S
as functions of θ, and a sec-
ond one (FISSION) carry out the numerical integration
for C
. The programs need only be run once, after
which the run of total energy for any (A, Z) as a function
of θ can be obtained by scaling S
and C
as Eq.14. ANGLE is written to step
in increments of
0.01 radians from π/2 at the start of the process down
to π/6 at the moment of fission.
FISSION has been written to take advantage of the
axial symmetry of the model. The internal and inter-pair
potentials of the N
angular wedges need not be com-
puted for all individual and pairs of wedges since the
internal potentials of all wedges will be identical and the
potentials between all possible pairs of wedges can be
determined by computing the potential between any one
and half of all the others. The equatorial symmetry of the
model was not built into the program in the anticipation
that it might later be used to simulate non-symmetric
fissions. After some experimentation, it was found that
choosing (NZ, NR, N
) = (200, 100, 100) provided for
both reasonably expedient run times and sensible accu-
racy; a complete run requires about 12 hours on a Mac-
intosh G5 and typically returns a starting-configuration
energy accurate to better than 0.1% (see below).
Figure 2 shows results for (A, Z) = (90, 40) and (235,
92), that is, nuclides of zirconium and uranium, respec-
tively. The ordinate is the change in total configuration
energy in the sense (deformed nucleus – original nu-
cleus). Zirconium is used as an example because for real
nuclei, much more sophisticated models, such as that of
Myers and Swiatecki [6], reveal that fission barriers
peak at a value of ~ 55 MeV for nuclei with A ~ 90.
While there is some noise in the simulation due to the
finite number of lattice cells, the computed maximum of
~ 47 MeV for zirconium is in good agreement with this
peak value. For uranium, the computation gives a barrier
of ~ 13 MeV, somewhat high compared to the true value
of ~ 6 MeV but still respectably accurate considering the
simplicity of the model. At the moment of fission, E in
the case of uranium has dropped to about 45 MeV. One
Figure 2. Evolution of (deformed - initial) configuration en-
ergy for nuclides with (A, Z) = (90, 40) (zirconium; upper
curve) and (235, 92) (uranium; lower curve). (aS, aC, ao) =
(0.72 MeV, 18 MeV, 1.2 fm). The limiting value of d/RO is
about 1.3685.
feature to note in Figure 1 is that in the case of uranium
the maximum distortion energy is reached at about the
middle of the fission process, whereas for zirconium the
maximum occurs at very near the end of the process.
The numerical precision achieved with the model can
be judged by examining how well it reproduces the con-
figuration energy for the initial undeformed nucleus.
This can be computed analytically as
start S
UaA aA
. (15)
For (A, Z) = (235, 92) and (aC, aS) = (0.72 MeV, 18
MeV), this gives Ustart = 1673.0 MeV; the simulation
gives 1673.74 MeV, only 0.04% high.
Figure 3 shows how the results of the present model
compare to those Myers and Swiatecki’s seven-parame-
ter model. For the present model, this plot was formed
by computing E(
) for values of A = 10, 15, 20, ···,
300 and searching for the maximum value of E for
each A; the curve is interpolated. In computing these
maximum E values it was assumed that the atomic
number Z for a given value of A could be modeled as Z ~
0.627A0.917 (1 < Z < 98), a purely empirical result based
on the (Z, A) trend of 352 nuclides with half-lives > 100
years [8]. The Myers and Swiatecki curve was generated
by fitting the empirical formula
 (16)
to Figure 18 of their paper by a least-squares calculation.
The values of the parameters are (C, p, Ao, n) = (5.115
17, 0.592 21, 156.630 3, 2.537 96). This fit predicts a
slightly high peak value for the curve (~ 58 MeV vs. a
true value of ~ 55 MeV), but is convenient for compar-
ing the models. The present model predicts somewhat
high values of
E at both low and high values of A and
somewhat low ones for intermediate values, but it does
B. C. Reed / Natural Science 3 (2011) 323-327
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. OPEN ACCESS
Figure 3. Comparison of results of present model (dashed line)
with those of Myers and Swiatecki (solid line; Ref. [6]). See
discussion of Eq. 16.
successfully reproduce the overall trend of E(A).
The key conclusions here are that the simulation is
physically appealing, convincingly demonstrates the
existence of fission barriers, reproduces the trend of bar-
rier heights with mass number, and gives plausible val-
ues for the barrier heights for interesting nuclides like
A model for simulating symmetric fission with a desk-
top computer has been developed. This model convinc-
ingly demonstrates both the presence of and approxi-
mately correct magnitudes for fission barriers of real
nuclides. The only physical concepts involved are Cou-
lomb and areal self-energies, and, as such, the model is
presentable to undergraduates in order to help them un-
derstand this important phenomenon. A spreadsheet
giving results for S
and C
as functions of θ which
users can employ to run calculations for any desired (A,
Z) values is freely available for download [9].
[1] Fermi, E. (1950) Nuclear physics. University of Chicago
Press, Chicago.
[2] Bohr, N. and Wheeler, J.A. (1939) The mechanism of
nuclear fission. Physical Review, 56, 426-450.
[3] Bernstein, J. and Pollock, F. (1979) The calculation of the
electrostatic energy in the liquid drop model of nuclear
fission—a pedagogical note. Physica, 96A, 136-140.
[4] Reed, B.C. (2009) The Bohr-Wheeler spontaneous fis-
sion limit: An undergraduate-level derivation. European
Journal of Physics, 30, 763-770.
[5] Frankel, S. and Metropolis, N. (1947) Calculations in the
liquid-drop model of fission. Physical Review, 72, 914-
925. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.72.914
[6] Myers, W.D. and Swiatecki, W.J. (1966) Nuclear masses
and deformations. Nuclear Physics, 81, 1-60.
[7] Reed, B.C. Details of the calculations of the volume and
surface area.
[8] Reed, B.C. (2003) Simple derivation of the Bohr- Whee-
ler spontaneous fission limit. American Journal of Phys-
ics, 71, 258-260.
[9] Reed, B.C. The spreadsheet.
http://othello.alma.edu/~reed/ SymmetricFission.xls