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Ionization by acceleration

  1. Dec 29, 2008 #1
    Is it possible to accelerate an atom (i.e. hydrogen), and have the force from acceleration overcome the binding force (between proton and electron), and ionize the hydrogen atom?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 30, 2008 #2
    Any thoughts?
  4. Dec 30, 2008 #3


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    What is the mechanism that you are proposing for acceleration? The typical method to ionize atoms is by adding energy.
  5. Dec 30, 2008 #4
    How about an imaginary rocket composed of the material (hydrogen) .
    Or a powerful centrifuge?
  6. Dec 30, 2008 #5
    That's an interesting question... I would conjecture that yes, it is possible. I don't really have any knowledge of quantum mechanics... however, I would guess something like the following:

    For instance, let's say you confine a hydrogen atom in a large vaccuum chamber in the center of a special rocket which you can accelerate impulsively, as fast as you want. Then at some acceleration the inertia of the nucleus will be much greater than the inertia of the electron, because the nucleus is significantly more heavy. Hence, at some critical acceleration, I would expect the ionization to occur. Sorry for this being so handwavy.
  7. Jan 1, 2009 #6
    Isn't this easier than everyone here is making it out to be?

    Stick a hydrogen within a strong electric field and turn it on. The electron accelerates towards the positive end of the E field and the proton towards the negative. Course, you'd have to figure out at what magnitude the E field must be in order to 'break' the atomic bond between the proton and electron.

    This is the only true form of acceleration I can think of that would do this. I'm not entirely sure if kicking off the electron via some special wavelength laser is considered a sort of acceleration. Maybe someone else does.

    No special rockets needed.
  8. Jan 1, 2009 #7


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    If the proton and electron are both accelerated uniformly and in the same direction, then no they will not be separated.

    Ionization pretty much requires an electric field, so the force on the electron and proton would be in opposite directions. Moreover, the force will produce a much larger acceleration on the electron, so in effect the electron is stripped away from the proton.

    "An electric field" can take different forms:

    • A photon with enough energy to ionize the hydrogen
    • A collision with charged particles such as ions or other electrons, as happens in a gas discharge
  9. Jan 2, 2009 #8
    In response to blackmatters -- well yes, that would certainly work, however, that's a little bit... boring? :) I assumed the OP was asking about unconventional methods.

    In response to redbelly, I do not think that ionization necessarily requires an electric field, at least, not directly. I would be pleased if you commented on the following example.

    Assume you have an ultra tiny hammer, and you are able to aim it at the center of a hydrogen atom, so that you strike the nucleus with a higher probability then striking the electron. Then, in this case, if you strike the nucleus hard enough, you will indeed ionize the atom through a mechanical interaction. Hence no electric interaction is necessarily required.
  10. Jan 2, 2009 #9
    What about my other example: Can atoms become ionized in a centrifuge with a strong electric field on the centrifuge axis (with a positive or negative charge) (edit) .. Would the atoms become mroe polarized?
    Last edited: Jan 2, 2009
  11. Jan 2, 2009 #10


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    When normal mechanical objects hit each other, it is electrostatic repulsion that gives rise to the force they exert on each other. So, in your example, it is still an electric field producing the force. However, you have confined the field to act on the nucleus rather than the electron. (EDIT:) So in that respect, it is different than the examples I gave.
    Last edited: Jan 2, 2009
  12. Jan 2, 2009 #11


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    If it were possible, it would be highly impractical. The centrifuge material would need to withstand forces that are strong enough to ionize hydrogen.
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