A team of astrophysicists believes that new elements may be being created in the universe through the most unknown particle binding process in science

In the beginning, there was plenty of hydrogen and helium, until the fiery fusion furnaces of primordial stars began producing heavier elements. Nuclear fusion can form elements until an atom contains 26 protons and 30 neutrons (aka iron) until it inevitably collapses. Of course, there’s just one problem. If you’ve looked at a periodic table lately, there are many more elements with atomic masses far beyond iron. So what’s going on?

It turns out that there is another element production process at work, and it’s called neutron capture, or nucleosynthesis. This process is split into two different types, which are called the fast neutron capture process (r-process) and the slow neutron capture process (s-process), and each of them is responsible for creating about half of the known elements beyond iron. As their names suggest, these processes occur in very different environments. The R-process requires a high density of free neutrons (think neutron star mergers or supernova collapses), while the s-process occurs in asymptotic giant branch (AGB) stars and possible metal-poor massive stars via radioactive decay.

But as with most things in astrophysics, things aren’t black and white. In 1977, scientists proposed a third process, known as the intermediate process (i-process), that exists between the r and s processes. The idea faded over time, but it has regained focus in recent years due to the enigma known as carbon-enhanced metal-poor r/s (CEMP) stars, which produce abundances of carbon and heavy elements associated with both processes. Now, a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison investigates how exactly such an i-process would work, and the solution to this big mystery turns to the very small quantum world.

Science Photo Library – MEHAU KULYK.//Getty Images

“When you have a supernova collapse, you start with a big star, which is gravitationally bound, and that binding has energy,” UW–Madison’s Baha Balantekin, co-author of a paper on the i process published in The Astrophysical Journal, explained in a news release. While the i process is a middle child of nucleosynthesis, one aspect it shares with the r process is that it only occurs under similarly violent conditions. “When it collapses, that energy has to be released, and it turns out that energy is released in neutrinos.”

When those neutrinos experience quantum entanglement due to interactions in a supernova, the i-process can take over and produce heavy elements. This entanglement means that the two neutrinos “remember” each other no matter how far away they are. Using well-known neutron capture rates, catalogs of atomic spectra from various stars, and data on neutrino production via supernovae, the team ran simplified simulations (supernovae produce 10^58 neutrinos, after all) and arrived at different abundances depending on whether these neutrinos were entangled or not.

“We have a system of, say, three neutrinos and three antineutrinos together in a region where there are protons and neutrons and we’ll see if that changes anything in the formation of elements,” Balantekin says. “We calculate the abundances of elements that are produced in the star, and you see that the entangled and non-entangled cases give different abundances.”

There are a few things about this hypothesis that still need to be tested; chief among them is that neutrino-neutrino interactions are largely hypothetical at this point. However, this new process could help better explain how something came from nothing.

Darren lives in Portland, has a cat, and writes/edits about sci-fi and how our world works. You can find his previous stuff at Gizmodo and Paste if you look hard enough.

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