What is Exothermic Reaction – Definition

The positive Q reactions are said to be exothermic (or exergic). Exothermic reactions release energy. For example fusion reaction or fission reaction. Material Properties

Exothermic Reactions

Q-value of DT fusion reaction
Q-value of DT fusion reaction

In nuclear and particle physics the energetics of nuclear reactions is determined by the Q-value of that reaction. The Q-value of the reaction is defined as the difference between the sum of the masses of the initial reactants and the sum of the masses of the final products, in energy units (usually in MeV).

Consider a typical reaction, in which the projectile a and the target A gives place to two products, B and b. This can also be expressed in the notation that we used so far, a + A → B + b, or even in a more compact notation, A(a,b)B.

See also: E=mc2

The Q-value of this reaction is given by:

Q = [ma + mA – (mb + mB)]c2

which is the same as the excess kinetic energy of the final products:

Q = Tfinal – Tinitial

   = Tb + TB – (Ta + TA)

For reactions in which there is an increase in the kinetic energy of the products Q is positive. The positive Q reactions are said to be exothermic (or exergic). There is a net release of energy, since the kinetic energy of the final state is greater than the kinetic energy of the initial state.

See also: Q-value Calculator

Example of Exothermic Reaction – Nuclear Fission

Nuclear binding energy curve.
Nuclear binding energy curve.
Source: hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu

Nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts (lighter nuclei). The fission process often produces free neutrons and photons (in the form of gamma rays), and releases a large amount of energy.

From the nuclear binding energy curve and from the table it can be seen that, in the case of splitting a 235U nucleus into two parts, the binding energy of the fragments (A ≈ 120) together is larger than that of the original 235U nucleus. According to the Weizsaecker formula, the total energy released for such reaction will be approximately 235 x (8.5 – 7.6) ≈ 200 MeV (it can also be derived from nuclear binding curve).

The total energy released in a reactor per 235U fission is distributed as shown in the table.

Energy release per fission

Example of Exothermic Reaction – DT fusion

The DT fusion reaction of deuterium and tritium is particularly interesting because of its potential of providing energy for the future. Calculate the reaction Q-value.

3T (d, n) 4He

The atom masses of the reactants and products are:

m(3T) = 3.0160 amu

m(2D) = 2.0141 amu

m(1n) = 1.0087 amu

m(4He) = 4.0026 amu

Using the mass-energy equivalence, we get the Q-value of this reaction as:

Q = {(3.0160+2.0141) [amu] – (1.0087+4.0026) [amu]} x 931.481 [MeV/amu]

= 0.0188 x 931.481 = 17.5 MeV

Example of Exothermic Reaction – Tritium in Reactors

Cross-section of 10B(n,2alpha)T reaction.
Cross-section of 10B(n,2alpha)T reaction.

Tritium is a byproduct in nuclear reactors. Most of the tritium produced in nuclear power plants stems from the boric acid, which is commonly used as a chemical shim to compensate an excess of initial reactivity. Main reaction, in which the tritium is generated from boron is below:


This reaction of a neutron with an isotope 10B is the main way, how radioactive tritium in primary circuit of all PWRs is generated. Note that, this reaction is a threshold reaction due to its cross-section.

Calculate the reaction Q-value.

The atom masses of the reactants and products are:

m(10B) = 10.01294 amu

m(1n) = 1.00866 amu

m(3T) = 3.01604 amu

m(4He) = 4.0026 amu

Using the mass-energy equivalence, we get the Q-value of this reaction as:

Q = {(10.0129+1.00866) [amu] – (3.01604+2 x 4.0026) [amu]} x 931.481 [MeV/amu]

= 0.00036 x 931.481 = 0.335 MeV

Nuclear and Reactor Physics:
  1. J. R. Lamarsh, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Theory, 2nd ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA (1983).
  2. J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.
  3. W. M. Stacey, Nuclear Reactor Physics, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, ISBN: 0- 471-39127-1.
  4. Glasstone, Sesonske. Nuclear Reactor Engineering: Reactor Systems Engineering, Springer; 4th edition, 1994, ISBN: 978-0412985317
  5. W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467
  6. Kenneth S. Krane. Introductory Nuclear Physics, 3rd Edition, Wiley, 1987, ISBN: 978-0471805533
  7. G.R.Keepin. Physics of Nuclear Kinetics. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co; 1st edition, 1965
  8. Robert Reed Burn, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Operation, 1988.
  9. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.

Advanced Reactor Physics:

  1. K. O. Ott, W. A. Bezella, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Statics, American Nuclear Society, Revised edition (1989), 1989, ISBN: 0-894-48033-2.
  2. K. O. Ott, R. J. Neuhold, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Dynamics, American Nuclear Society, 1985, ISBN: 0-894-48029-4.
  3. D. L. Hetrick, Dynamics of Nuclear Reactors, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48453-2.
  4. E. E. Lewis, W. F. Miller, Computational Methods of Neutron Transport, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48452-4.

See also:

Nuclear Reactions

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