Published: 12 December 2014

Nuclear physics research throws light on exploding stars

Ground-breaking nuclear physics research that furthers our understanding of life on earth has been published in Physical Review Letters.

The research was led by physicists from the University’s Centre for Nuclear and Radiation Physics (CNRP), world-leading research institute RIKEN in Tokyo, and Beihang University in Beijing. Early results of the four-year project appear in the December edition of Physical Review Letters, the most prestigious journal in the field of physics.

Conducted at the RIKEN Nishina Centre, the research, which is part of a wider European-Japanese EURICA collaboration, revealed important details of the nuclear structure of elements that are created in exploding stars.

The research involved accelerating uranium (the heaviest naturally occurring element) to 70 per cent of the speed of light and colliding it into a metal target, then analysing fragments from the collisions using a gamma-ray microscope. The key finding was the confirmation of a deformed ‘shell gap’ in the nuclear structure. By understanding more about nuclear reactions inside exploding stars, it is possible to predict the elements that exist in our solar system – which is itself the product of ancient stellar explosions – furthering our knowledge of the way stars and galaxies evolve and create conditions suitable for life.

In addition, the highly advanced imaging technology developed for the project has important implications for the medical imaging process, potentially improving future diagnosis of cancer and cancer therapy. 

The Surrey team was made up of Professor Phil Walker, PhD student Zena Patel, Professor Zsolt Podolyak, Professor Paddy Regan and Dr Simon Rice.

Zena Patel, who took the lead in analysing the data, said, “The important and exciting nuclear physics we’re learning from these experiments will teach us a lot about the universe we see today.”

Professor Phil Walker added, “This is a tremendous team effort, revealing some of the smallest details about the structure of atomic nuclei. Amazingly, such small details can control key aspects of element creation in exploding stars, and these enable the formation of planets (such as Earth) that can harbour life. We are delighted to have had our work published in the Physical Review Letters.”



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