New research explains formation heavy elements inuniverse

New research explains formation of heavy elements in the universe

6:18 AM, 11th May 2012
New research explains formation of heavy elements in the universe
Supernova explosion. © NASA

OSLO, NORWAY: New insight into the behaviour of atomic nuclei may explain how gigantic star explosions, or supernovas, have formed the elements that are crucial to mankind. Ground-breaking research at the University of Oslo may help astrophysicists understand how the heavier elements in our universe were made. In 1957, researchers concluded that elements were formed through nuclear reactions inside stars. Astrophysicists have believed that half the elements which are heavier than iron were formed in gigantic star explosions, known as supernovas. Astrophysicists have huge problems to make computer simulations of a supernova.

“Astrophysicists have not yet managed to make realistic computer simulations of supernova explosions,” said Ann-Cecilie Larsen, Nuclear Physicist, University of Oslo. The simulations are based on certain characteristics of the atomic nucleus that are taken for granted but which have never been tested, as these characteristics are hard to determine. New experiments have shown that astrophysicists are using the wrong data in their models. The new results may have a great impact.

“Calculations show that it will be 200 to 300 times easier to achieve specific nuclear reactions in a supernova with our data. In earlier times we thought the Sun was fuelled by coal. However, when we came to understand how old the solar system actually was, we realized there wasn’t enough coal to fuel the Sun. Instead, the production of heat was explained by fusion, in other words melting nuclei together,” said Larsen.

The Sun consists of hydrogen, helium and a small portion of heavier elements. Pairs of hydrogen atoms fuse into helium atoms when the temperature and the pressure are so high that they exceed the electromagnetic forces that push the atoms apart. This is what happens at the centre of the Sun, where temperatures reach 15 million degrees Celsius.

About four billion years from now, all the hydrogen will be burned up. The combustion of helium will start, converting helium into carbon and oxygen. In this way, increasingly heavy elements are formed. When the Sun expires, the core of the Sun will be transformed into neon. In a really heavy star, the core will have turned into iron. Then it will be over. A dying star will never be able to form heavier elements than iron.

“Our experiments show a strong probability that the atomic nucleus releases small amounts of energy. It has been widely believed that this had little effect on the formation of elements in supernovae. The dynamics of the element production could be very different. All the atomic nuclei are connected in a network. If the nucleus of an atom changes its characteristics,” said Larsen. One of the problems with simulations is that no one knows what happens when nuclear reactions move beyond the well-known nuclei and out to the very exotic ones, that are not found in nature.

© University of Oslo News

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