Scientists have discovered new type of uranium that’s the lightest ever known. The discovery could reveal more about a strange alpha particle that gets ejected from certain radioactive elements as they decay.
The newfound uranium, called uranium-214, is an isotope, or a variant of the element, with 30 more neutrons than protons, one fewer neutron than the next-lightest known uranium isotope. Because neutrons have mass, uranium-214 is far lighter than more common uranium isotopes, including uranium-235, which is used in nuclear reactors and has 51 extra neutrons.
This newfound isotope isn’t just lighter than others, but it also showed unique behaviors during its decay. As such, the new findings will help scientists better understand a radio-active decay process referred to as alpha decay , in which an atomic nucleus loses group of 2 protons and 2 neutrons — collectively called alpha particle .
Though scientists know that alpha decay leads to the ejection of this alpha particle , after a century of study, they still don’t know the precise details of how the alpha particle is formed before it gets ejected.
The researchers created the new uranium isotope at the Heavy Ion research center in Lanzhou, China. There, they shone a beam of argon at a target made from tungsten inside a machine called a gas-filled recoil separator, in this case the Spectrometer for Heavy Atoms and Nuclear Structure, or SHANS. By shining a laser at the tungsten, the researchers effectively added protons and neutrons to material to create uranium.
The new uranium-214 isotope had a half-life of just half a millisecond, meaning that’s the amount of your time it takes for half the radioactive sample to decay. The foremost common isotope of uranium — called uranium-238 —a half-life of about 4.5 billion years, which is about the age of Earth.
By carefully watching how the isotopes decayed, the scientists were ready to study the strong nuclear force — one among the four fundamental forces that hold matter together — acting on the alpha particle parts — the neutrons and protons — on the surface of the uranium. They found that the proton and neutron in each alpha particle interacted far more strongly than in isotopes and other elements with similar numbers of protons and neutrons that are previously studied.
This is likely thanks to the precise number of neutrons inside the nucleus of uranium-214, the researchers said. The new isotope has 122 neutrons, nearing the “magic neutron number” of 126, which is particularly stable thanks to the configuration of the neutrons in complete sets, or shells. With this configuration, it’s easier for scientists to calculate the strong force interaction interaction between the protons and neutrons. That makes these isotopes particularly interesting to scientists, since studying these interactions can reveal features related with nuclear-structure and decay process, said study lead author Zhiyuan Zhang, physicist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The scientists suspect that this proton-neutron interaction might be even stronger heavier radioactive elements like isotopes of plutonium and neptunium. These elements have a couple of more protons, and therefore the configuration of their orbits suggests they might have even stronger interactions than the uranium isotopes. The scientists would really like to study other elemental isotopes near the magic neutron number; however, since such elements have even shorter half-lives, even more sensitive detectors and more powerful beams are going to be needed.
The new findings were published April 14 in the journal Physical Review Letters.