Saturday, 19 March 2011

Production of heavy elements

According to the theory, as the Universe cooled after the big bang it eventually became possible for common subatomic particles as we know them (neutrons, protons and electrons) to exist. The most common particles created in the big bang which are still easily observable to us today were protons and electrons (in equal numbers). The protons would eventually form hydrogen atoms. Almost all the neutrons created in the Big Bang were absorbed into helium-4 in the first three minutes after the Big Bang, and this helium accounts for most of the helium in the universe today (see Big Bang nucleosynthesis).

Some fraction of elements beyond helium were created in the Big Bang, as the protons and neutrons collided with each other (lithium, beryllium, and perhaps some boron), but all of the "heavier elements" (heavier than carbon, element number 6) that we see today, were created inside of stars during a series of fusion stages, such as the proton-proton chain, the CNO cycle and the triple-alpha process. Progressively heavier elements are created during the evolution of a star.

Since the binding energy per nucleon peaks around iron, energy is only released in fusion processes occurring below this point. Since the creation of heavier nuclei by fusion costs energy, nature resorts to the process of neutron capture. Neutrons (due to their lack of charge) are readily absorbed by a nucleus. The heavy elements are created by either a slow neutron capture process (the so-called s process) or by the rapid, or r process. The s process occurs in thermally pulsing stars (called AGB, or asymptotic giant branch stars) and takes hundreds to thousands of years to reach the heaviest elements of lead and bismuth. The r process is thought to occur in supernova explosions because the conditions of high temperature, high neutron flux and ejected matter are present. These stellar conditions make the successive neutron captures very fast, involving very neutron-rich species which then beta-decay to heavier elements, especially at the so-called waiting points that correspond to more stable nuclides with closed neutron shells (magic numbers). The r process duration is typically in the range of a few seconds.

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