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FUN FACT: Research confirms theory that gold originates from the collision of neutron stars

Tiffany Zhou | January 23, 2023

For years, scientists have puzzled about the origin of gold, platinum, and other heavy metal elements on Earth. Lighter elements such as iron are typically formed within stars; however, this process differs for elements with more than 26 protons in their nucleus. Excitingly, recent research has emerged in support of a popular theory that heavy elements come from the rare collision of neutron stars.

What are neutron stars?

Neutron stars are incredibly dense entities– almost as dense as black holes–that are formed during the death and collapse of heavy stars. In the rare event that two neutron stars collide, they create a bright explosion, termed a kilonova by astronomers. During kilonovas, free neutrons escape under conditions of high temperature and pressure. 

How did scientists confirm the theory?

In 2017, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Virgo observatory successfully detected gravitational waves and a gamma-ray burst from the first kilonova witnessed by the astronomers. When analyzing the light emitted, scientists discovered chemical signatures of heavy elements like gold. 

Scientists theorize that when free neutrons escape during a kilonova, a phenomenon known as the rapid neutron-capture process, or “R process,” occurs. A seed nucleus with, for example, 26 protons, captures neutrons, some of which then decay into protons. This then results in the generation of heavier elements. 

Who knew that your jewelry has such an explosive and complex history?

News from Scientific American

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