Measurements at CERN help to re-evaluate the element of life

The new results will influence estimates of the time for the evolution of stars such as Betelgeuse (top left in the constellation Orion), seen here by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. (Andrea Dupree (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), Ronald Gilliland (STScI), NASA and ESA.)

The new results will influence estimates of the time for the evolution of stars such as Betelgeuse (top left in Orion), seen here by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. (Andrea Dupree (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), Ronald Gilliland (STScI), NASA and ESA.)

Geneva, 13 January 2005. Results from experiments at CERN1 and the Jyväskylä Accelerator Laboratory in Finland, reported in Nature2 today, cast new light on the primary reaction that creates carbon in stars. All the carbon in the Universe, including that needed for carbon-based life forms such as ourselves, has been made in the hearts of stars through what is known as the "triple alpha reaction". The new findings modify the rate at which the reaction occurs and have broad implications for astrophysics, from the formation of the first stars to the creation of the heaviest elements in supernovae.

"The connection between the subatomic world and the cosmos is fascinating. The example of carbon is an old problem with contributions from many heroes in the field. It is a pleasure to be able to answer some of the questions they have left for us. It is the technological development in the intervening years, for example at ISOLDE, that has made this possible," says from Hans Fynbo of the University of Aarhus, lead author of the paper.

The big bang created mainly only hydrogen (mass 1) and helium (mass 4), because there are no long lived atomic nuclei with mass 5 and 8 to make the bridge to heavier elements such as carbon (mass 12). But in the hearts of stars the formation of carbon is possible through the triple-alpha reaction, where three helium nuclei (alpha particles) fuse to make to make a nucleus of carbon-12.

Rather than recreate the scorching conditions inside stars, the team from CERN and eight other European universities and institutes watched the reaction unfold in reverse, as nuclei of carbon-12 broke into three alpha particles. To do this, they created boron-12 and nitrogen-12, which are short-lived isotopes of the elements that flank carbon in the Periodic Table. The boron-12 was produced at CERN's ISOLDE facility, while the nitrogen-12 was created at the IGISOL facility at the Jyväskylä Accelerator Laboratory at the University of Jyväskylä. These unstable nuclei soon transformed into carbon-12, through beta decay, in which a proton changes into a neutron or vice versa; the carbon-12 then broke into three alpha particles.

The ISOL method -isotope separation on line- originally pioneered and developed mainly at CERN played an important role in these experiments. "While ISOLDE at CERN could make the boron-12, IGISOL in Jyväskylä was needed to produce the nitrogen-12. This facility in Finland was specifically developed to complement ISOLDE's performance through its ability to produce very short-lived radioisotopes of chemically reactive elements such as nitrogen," said Juha Äysto, head of the group responsible for the experiment at the University of Jyväskylä.

By measuring precisely the timing and energies of alpha particles shooting from the samples, the researchers were able to infer the energy states of the carbon nuclei just before decay. With this information in hand, they were able to determine the rate for the triple alpha process over a wide range of temperatures, from 0.01 - 10billion K.

For the conditions in most stars, the researchers' calculated rates for the triple alpha process agree with previous calculations. But their findings suggest the triple alpha rate at the relatively low temperatures of the Universe's first stars (around 0.05 billion K), which began without carbon, was much faster. This in turn implies that the amount of carbon that could catalyze hydrogen burning in the first stars was produced twice as fast as previously thought.

At high temperatures, above 1 billion K, the new results indicate that the triple alpha process would work significantly slower than previous estimates, modifying the process of element production - nucleosynthesis - in supernovae. These explosions of old massive stars are a major source of the heaviest elements, those more massive than iron, through interactions in the surrounding shock wave. The new results suggest a reduction in the amount of nickel-56 produced with subsequent effects for heavier elements.

This work was carried by a team from CERN and eight other European universities and institutes3.

Footnote(s)

1 CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, has its headquarters in Geneva. At present, its Member States are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. India, Israel, Japan, the Russian Federation, the United States of America, Turkey, the European Commission and UNESCO have Observer status.

2 Nature Vol 433, Issue 7022, pp 136-139.

3 The collaboration's members: Hans O.U. Fynbo, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Aarhus, 8000 ?rhus C, Denmark; Christian Aa. Diget, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Aarhus, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark; Uffe C. Bergmann, CERN, CH-1211 Geneva 23, Switzerland; Maria J.G. Borge, Instituto Estructura de la Materia, CSIC, Serrano 113bis, E-28006, Madrid, Spain; Joakim Cederkäll, CERN, CH-1211 Geneva 23, Switzerland; Peter Dendooven, KVI, Zernikelaan, 9747 AA Groningen, The Netherlands; Luis M. Fraile, CERN, CH-1211 Geneva 23, Switzerland; Serge Franchoo, CERN, CH-1211 Geneva 23, Switzerland; Valentin N. Fedosseev, CERN, CH-1211 Geneva 23, Switzerland; Brian R. Fulton, Department of Physics, University of York, Heslington, UK; Wenxue Huang, Department of Physics, University of Jyväskylä, , FIN-40351 Jyväskylä, Finland;

Jussi Huikari, Department of Physics, University of Jyväskylä, FIN-40351 Jyväskylä, Finland; Henrik B. Jeppesen, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Aarhus, 8000 ?rhus C, Denmark; Ari S. Jokinen, Department of Physics, University of Jyväskylä, FIN-40351 Jyväskylä, Finland, Helsinki Institute of Physics, FIN-00014 University of Helsinki, Finland; Peter Jones, Department of Physics, University of Jyväskylä, FIN-40351 Jyväskylä, Finland; Björn Jonson, Experimental Physics, Chalmers University of Technology and Göteborg University, S-41296 Göteborg, Sweden; Ulli Köster, CERN, CH-1211 Geneva 23, Switzerland; Karlheinz Langanke, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Aarhus, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark; Mikael Meister, Experimental Physics, Chalmers University of Technology and Göteborg University, S-41296 Göteborg, Sweden; Thomas Nilsson, CERN, CH-1211 Geneva 23, Switzerland;

Göran Nyman, Experimental Physics, Chalmers University of Technology and Göteborg University, S-41296 Göteborg, Sweden; Yolanda Prezado, Instituto Estructura de la Materia, CSIC, Serrano 113bis, E-28006, Madrid, Spain; Karsten Riisager, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Aarhus, 8000 ?rhus C, Denmark; Sami Rinta-Antila, Department of Physics, University of Jyväskylä, FIN-40351 Jyväskylä, Finland; Olof Tengblad, Instituto Estructura de la Materia, CSIC, Serrano 113bis, E-28006, Madrid, Spain; Manuela Turrion; Instituto Estructura de la Materia, CSIC, Serrano 113bis, E-28006, Madrid, Spain; Youbao Wang, Department of Physics, University of Jyväskylä, FIN-40351 Jyväskylä, Finland; Leonid Weissman, CERN, CH-1211 Geneva 23, Switzerland; Katarina Wilhelmsen, Experimental Physics, Chalmers University of Technology and Göteborg University, S-41296 Göteborg, Sweden;

Juha Äystö, Department of Physics, University of Jyväskylä, FIN-40351 Jyväskylä, Finland, Helsinki Institute of Physics, FIN-00014 University of Helsinki, Finland and the ISOLDE Collaboration, CERN, CH-1211 Geneva 23, Switzerland.

You are here