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Essential Elements

50 51 StEllar fuSIon making the sun shine We are born of stars. All of our atoms, except for primal hydrogen and helium, come from the massive furnaces of space. Our sun is a second generation white dwarf. A huge nuclear fusion reactor, the enormous temperatures and pressures created by gravity squeeze four atoms of hydrogen together to form one of helium, releasing energy that reaches us as sunlight. The hydrogen in stars eventually runs out and they collapse. Temperatures soar and the helium fuses into new elements, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen. Stars the size of the sun fizzle out when the helium finishes. For bigger stars its a different story. When they reach this stage their greater mass ignites carbon fusion, scrunching into neon, oxygen and magnesium. As the carbon is exhausted the core contracts again, this time producing silicon and sulphur. Intermediate elements are meanwhile painstakingly assembled by slow neutron capture, like a jigsaw that takes thousands of years. With a further collapse the core is converted into iron, cobalt and nickel. Since iron fusion uses up more energy than it gives out, the star literally expires and undergoes a drastic final implosion that ends in a cataclysmic supernova explosion. In this immense cauldron many new elements are cooked up. Some are created by rapid neutron capture with bits and pieces being slammed together to form heavy atoms like uranium, whilst others are formed by spallation, where larger atoms are chipped into smaller pieces by ultra high speed debris.
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