Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: nucleosynthesis from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1960) : the production of a chemical element from simpler nuclei (as of hydrogen) esp. in a star

nu•cle•o•syn•thet•ic \-sin-॑the-tik\ adj

Summary Article: nucleosynthesis from The Columbia Encyclopedia

or nucleogenesis, in astronomy, production of all the chemical elements from the simplest element, hydrogen, by thermonuclear reactions within stars, supernovas, and in the big bang at the beginning of the universe (see nucleus; nuclear energy). A star obtains its energy by fusing together light nuclei to form heavier nuclei; in this process, mass (m) is converted into energy (E) in accordance with Einstein's formula, E=mc2, in which c is the speed of light. The reactions are initiated by the high temperatures (about 14 million degrees Celsius) at the center of the star. In the course of producing nuclear energy, the star synthesizes all the elements of the periodic table from its initial composition of mostly hydrogen and a small amount of helium.

Transformation of Hydrogen to Helium

The first step is the fusion of four hydrogen nuclei to make one helium nucleus. This "hydrogen-burning" phase supplies energy to stars on the main sequence of the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. There are two chains of reactions by which the conversion of hydrogen to helium is effected: the proton-proton cycle and the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen cycle (sometimes referred to simply as the carbon cycle). They were both first studied and proposed as sources of stellar energy by H. Bethe and independently by C. von Weiszäcker. The proton-proton cycle operates in less massive and luminous stars like the sun, while the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen cycle (which speeds up dramatically at higher temperatures) dominates in more massive and luminous stars.

The Proton-Proton Cycle

In the proton-proton cycle, two hydrogen nuclei (protons) are fused and one of these protons is converted to a neutron by beta decay (see radioactivity) to make a deuterium nucleus (one proton and one neutron). Then a third proton is added to deuterium to form the light isotope of helium, helium-3. When two helium-3 nuclei collide, they form a nucleus of ordinary helium, helium-4 (two protons and two neutrons), and release two protons. In each of these steps considerable energy is also released.

The Carbon-Nitrogen-Oxygen Cycle

The carbon-nitrogen-oxygen cycle requires minute traces of carbon as a catalyst. Four protons are added, one by one, to a carbon nucleus to form a succession of excited (unstable) nuclei of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. The intermediate nuclei shed their excess electric charge via beta decay and the final oxygen nucleus spontaneously splits into the original carbon nucleus and a helium-4 nucleus, releasing energy. The net effect is again the combination of four hydrogen nuclei to form one helium-4 nucleus; the carbon is free to begin the cycle over again.

Creation of the Heavier Elements

After the bulk of a star's hydrogen has been converted to helium by either the proton-proton or carbon-nitrogen-oxygen process, the stellar core contracts (while the outer layers expand) until sufficiently high temperatures are reached to initiate "helium-burning" by the triple-alpha process; in this process, three helium nuclei (alpha particles) are fused to make a carbon nucleus. By successive additions of helium nuclei, the heavier elements through iron-56 are built up. The elements whose atomic weights are not multiples of four are created by side reactions that involve neutrons. Because iron-56 is the most stable of the elements, it is very difficult to add an extra helium nucleus to it. However, iron-56 will readily capture a neutron to form the less stable isotope, iron-57. From iron-57, the elements through bismuth-209 can be synthesized. The elements more massive than bismuth-209 are radioactive; that is, they spontaneously break apart. However, during a supernova, an extremely intense flux of neutrons is generated and nuclear reactions proceed so rapidly that the radioactive elements do not have enough time to decay, resulting in the rapid creation of the radioactive elements up to and beyond uranium.

  • See D. L. Clayton, Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis (1968, repr. 1983).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

Related Credo Articles

Full text Article nucleosynthesis
Astronomy Encyclopedia

Process whereby HELIUM and the HEAVY ELEMENTS are created from HYDROGEN . There are four main areas involved in nucleosynthesis: the...

Full text Article nuclear fusion
Britannica Concise Encyclopedia

Process by which nuclear reactions between light elements form heavier ones, releasing huge amounts of energy. In 1939 Hans Bethe suggested that th

See more from Credo