From carbon to uranium and from oxygen to iron, chemical elements are the building blocks of the world around us and the wider universe. Now physicists hope for an unprecedented insight into their origins by opening up a new object that will create thousands of strange and unstable versions of atoms never before recorded on Earth.
By studying these versions, known as isotopes, they hope to gain new insight into the interactions that created the elements in supernovae, and to test the theory of “strong force” — one of the four fundamental forces found in nature. found and those protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of the atom. The plant can also produce new isotopes for medical use.
Atoms are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. The number of protons determines the chemical behavior of an atom and which element – for example, carbon always has six protons, gold 79 – while atoms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons are called isotopes.
Because many isotopes are unstable and decay quickly — sometimes within milliseconds — scientists have studied only a small percentage of the isotopes believed to exist.
“There are 285 elemental isotopes found on Earth, but we think there are probably 10,000 elemental isotopes, even uranium,” said Professor Bradley Sherrill, scientific director of the Rare Isotope Rays Facility (FRIB) in Michigan. The university was officially opened on 2 May. “FRIB’s goal is to provide as much access to this vast landscape to other peers as the technology allows.”
Some of these “rare isotopes” can trigger key reactions for the formation of elements, so by studying them, physicists hope to gain a better understanding of the chemical history of the universe — including how we got here.
The vast majority of elements are believed to have formed in exploding stars, but “in many cases we don’t know which stars created which elements, because these interactions involve unstable isotopes — things we can’t easily get,” said Professor Gavin. Lotay, a nuclear physicist at the University of Surrey who plans to use the new object to study common explosions called X-rays in neutron stars.
Another goal is to understand atomic nuclei well enough to develop a comprehensive model that could provide new insight into the role they play in generating energy for stars or reactions in nuclear power plants.
The facility may also produce medically useful analogs. Doctors are already using radioisotopes in pet research and some types of radiation therapy, but discovering more isotopes could help improve diagnostic imaging or provide new ways to find and destroy tumors.
To generate these isotopes, FRIB will accelerate the atomic core beam to half the speed of light and send it through a 450-meter-long tube before breaking down into a target that breaks some atoms into smaller groups of protons and neutrons. A series of magnets then filters the desired isotopes and directs them to the experimental chambers for further investigation.
“In a millionth of a second, we can select a specific isotope and subject it to an experiment in which: [scientists] “We can capture it and observe its radioactive decay, or we can use it to start a new nuclear reaction and use these reaction products to tell us something about the structure of the isotope,” Sherrill said.
The first experiments involve producing the heaviest possible isotopes of fluorine, aluminum, magnesium and neon, and comparing the rate of radioactive decay with that predicted by current models. “It would be a surprise if our observations were as we expected,” Cheryl said. “They probably won’t agree, and then we’ll use this argument to improve our models.”
About a month later, FRIB researchers plan to measure the radioactive decay of isotopes believed to exist in neutron stars — one of the densest objects in the universe, formed when a massive star ran out of fuel and collapsed — to better understand their behavior.
“We finally have the tools to empower people to do the research they’ve been waiting for 30 years,” Cheryl said. “It’s like having a new, bigger telescope that can see into the universe better than ever – only we’ll be looking deeper into the nuclear landscape than we’ve ever been able to peer. Every time you have a new instrument like that, there’s potential for discovery.”