New insight into one of the universe’s primordial reactions

Novel particle detector is used to study alternate paths to carbon creation in stars.


According to experts, carbon, the universally recognized basic building ingredient of life, is likely to have formed inside the cores of stars. Scientists are now utilizing an experimental device to see if the element might have been created under different conditions.

A research collaboration involving physicists from Texas A&M University, Washington University, and Ohio University is using Ohio’s John E. Edwards Accelerator Laboratory’s TexAT particle accelerator in conjunction with powerful neutron beamlines to see if carbon can be produced more efficiently if a sufficient flux of neutrons is also present in the carbon-producing regions of stars.

In 2017, Lee Sobotka, professor of chemistry and physics, both in Arts & Sciences, first proposed using a time-projection chamber to determine the influence of neutrons on the triple-alpha process.

Sobotka said“This experiment married a very special tool — an active-target time-projection chamber — with a low-energy accelerator capable of producing near mono-energetic neutrons. It’s a first-of-its-kind union that provided the answer to a question first posted 55 years ago on making the seed for heavy-element synthesis.”

Scientists found that neutrons play a much smaller role in creating carbon than previously thought.

The experiment is a flagship product of the Center for Excellence in Nuclear Training and University-based Research (CENTAUR), a $10 million multi-institutional effort led by Texas A&M and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration. WashU has been part of CENTAUR since 2018.

Sobotka will give lecture about these findings at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 5, in the Louderman Building, Room 458.

Journal Reference:

  1. Bishop, J., Parker, C.E., Rogachev, G.V. et al. Neutron-upscattering enhancement of the triple-alpha process. Nature Communications 13, 2151 (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-29848-7
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