Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chain Reactions in the Sun

The sun generates energy by the converting the hydrogen in its core to helium. The details are complex, but we may content ourselves with an overview. When temperatures and pressures are sufficiently high (temperatures of about 10 million K are required) 4 hydrogen nuclei (which are protons, positively charged particles) can combine to create the nucleus of a helium atom (2 protons and 2 neutrons). Now the mass of the helium nucleus created is slightly less than that of the four protons that were needed to create it. That small difference in mass is converted into energy in the fusion process. One of the simplest fusion reactions involves the production of deuterium (a hydrogen isotope) from a proton and a neutron. When these two particles collide with enough velocity, they create a deuterium nucleus (consisting of a proton and a neutron) and the excess energy is given off as a gamma ray photon. In the sun, this process proceeds on a massive scale, liberating the energy that lights up our daytime skies. That’s a 4 ×1026 watt lightbulb up there, remember.

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