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Nuclear Vs Thermorbaric Bomb: What's the Difference?

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Has the recent geo-economic tension between Russia and Ukraine made you familiar with nuclear and thermobaric bomb terms? If the answer is yes, I guess you might have wondered how these are different.

What is the difference between a nuclear bomb and a thermobaric bomb?

The main difference between a nuclear bomb and a thermobaric bomb rests within their composition and working principle. While the former is mostly Uranium, the latter is 100% fuel. A nuclear bomb combines explosive chemical elements to release a large amount of energy; in contrast, thermobaric bombs have dual-stage munitions to achieve a similar conclusion.

That's not it, though. Read until the end and uncover everything that makes a nuclear bomb different from a thermobaric bomb.

What is a Nuclear Bomb?

The mushroom cloud of the first test of a hydrogen bomb (a type of Nuclear Bomb) in the Pacific Ocean, 1952

A nuclear bomb reflects a type of nuclear weapon engineered to release energy explosively. The mechanism involves two processes, namely nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion, that combine chemical explosives. The chemical explosives operate in a manner that compresses the available nuclear material. All these results in fission. Later, the same fission releases energy as X-rays. 

The energy in question accumulates until it reaches the high pressure and high-temperature region necessary to trigger fusion.

What is a Thermobaric (Vacuum) Bomb?

A Thermobaric Bomb explosion in Crimea, 2016

Thermobaric weapons are explosives that contain 100% fuel. It is a two-stage ammunition where the first stage ensures the aerosol distribution by the charges.

The second stage performs the necessary ignition. Together, the two create a fireball that generates a huge shock wave and creates a vacuum environment that consumes all surrounding oxygen.

Differences Between Nuclear Bomb and Thermobaric (Vacuum) Bomb

Definition

A nuclear bomb is a type of nuclear weapon devised to release energy explosively. It involves combining two processes, namely nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. On the other hand, Thermobaric weapons, popular as vacuum bombs, reflect an explosive featuring a two-stage munition. The munition is the factor that creates enormous explosions. 

Working Principle

Modern-day nuclear bombs or nuclear weapons take the combination of chemical explosives nuclear fission, alongside nuclear fusion, under consideration and proceed with its operational terms. These explosives compress all the available nuclear material and eventually result in fission. In the later stages, this fission releases immense amounts of energy in the form of X-rays. The same energy in X-ray form creates the high pressure and temperature required for igniting fusion.

The case is a bit different with the thermobaric weapon. Popular as a vacuum or aerosol bomb, the working mechanism involves a two-stage munition. The first stage is all about the aerosol distribution (the one made of very fine material derived from a carbon-based fuel). The second stage concerns ignition of that cloud. It thus creates a fireball that packs a huge shock wave alongside a vacuum environment as it takes up all the oxygen in the surrounding.

Compared to how long a conventional explosive can last, the blast wave for thermobaric can last longer. A vacuum bomb can even vaporize human bodies.

Composition

Talking about nuclear weapons, the two fissile materials used are 235U and Oak Ridge Alloy. While most of the Uranium used bags 93.5% enriched U-235, it also contains 93% Plutonium-239 and other isotopes.

Most of the modern-day conventional explosives are found comprising a fuel–oxidizer premix, black powder, for instance. The composition for the same holds nearly about 25% fuel and the rest 75% oxidizer. The presence of decomposition-type explosives like RDX is also noticed. However, thermobaric weapons or vacuum bombs are almost 100% fuel; this is why they're extremely more energetic.

Other Terms

A nuclear bomb is known by several names. The most common ones are the atom bomb, nuclear weapon, and the atomic bomb. The terms nuclear warhead and A-bomb or nuke also designate a nuclear bomb.

The vacuum bomb is also known as an aerosol bomb, fuel-air bomb, thermobaric bomb, and volume-detonation bomb.

First Test Performed

Although we don't have any strong report on when and where the first test for a thermobaric bomb was conducted, the same for a nuclear weapon does exist. It took place in the United States and dates back to July 16, 1945. The exact location was Alamogordo Bombing Range, which sits in south-central New Mexico. The test was performed by the code name Trinity.

Inventor

The person behind the nuclear weapon is an American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. In contrast, the crude versions of thermobaric weapons were first brought to the scene by the Germans during the Second World War. 

First Use

As of today, nuclear weapons have only been used twice. The first is the bombings of Hiroshima, while the second is in Nagasaki. Both took place in the year 1945.

The first traces of thermobaric bombs also date from the Second World War. The German army initially used it. Since then, the Western states, alongside the Soviet Union, have used it since the 1960s.

International Law

As per the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the use of nuclear weapons is considered illegal, whether it be their possession or even their development. Yes, international law is against deploying, testing, and using nuclear weapons.

With Vacuum bombs, sadly, the scenes aren't similar. Currently, there are no international laws that specifically ban the usage of thermobaric bombs. However, it is crucial to keep in mind that if a country deploys them to target the civilian populations in built-up areas, it will conclude a war crime under The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907.

Comparison Table: Nuclear Bomb Vs Thermobaric Bomb

FactorsNuclear BombThermobaric Bomb
Working PrincipleInvolves two processes, namely nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion, that combine chemical explosives togetherProceeds via two state munition. The first is all about distribution, the second is more concerned about ignition
CompositionUranium, 93.5% enriched U-235, it also contains 93% Plutonium-239 and other isotopes100% fuel
Other TermsAtom bomb, nuclear weapon, an atomic bomb, nuke, nuclear warfareAerosol bomb, fuel-air bomb, thermobaric bomb, and volume-detonation bomb
First Ever Test Alamogordo Bombing Range, USNot known
InventorAmerican Physicist J. Robert OppenheimerGerman
First UseHiroshima, 1945During World War II
International LawUnlawful to possess, threaten or deployNo such rule as yett

Frequently Asked Questions

Which is the most devastating: the Nuclear Bomb or the Thermobaric Bomb?

Although both nuclear bombs and thermobaric bombs are powerful enough to bring unparalleled destruction, the latter packs the capability of even vaporizing human bodies.

Wrapping Up

That's pretty much everything you need to know about the factors that put a nuclear bomb and a thermobaric bomb in distinct plates. Although a bit complex to understand, I ensured you dealt with it at ease.

References

Feel free to comment and discuss about the article in the comment space below if you have any information or remarks to add. If you think we made a mistake, you can also report it there.

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About the Author: Nicolas Seignette

Nicolas Seignette, who holds a scientific baccalaureate, began his studies in mathematics and computer science applied to human and social sciences (MIASHS). He then continued his university studies with a DEUST WMI (Webmaster and Internet professions) at the University of Limoges before finishing his course with a professional license specialized in the IT professions. On 10Differences, he is in charge of the research and the writing of the articles concerning technology, sciences and mathematics.
All Posts Written By Nicolas Seignette

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