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Scientists brew up 'missing link' isotope

Doubly magic nickel-78

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Scientists at Michigan State University have succeeded in recreating an isotope of nickel they say is a "missing link" in the process by which precious metals are formed in supernovae.

German and US boffins working at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) fired atoms of a stable isotpe of krypton at a beryllium plate. In the process, they were able to create 11 nickel-78 (Ni-78) atoms - a highly unstable isotope consisting of 28 protons and 50 neutrons - and determine its life at just 110 milliseconds.

Ni-78 does not exist in nature, SpaceDaily.com reports, but the NSCL team says it must have existed as a key step in the "progressive decay of isotopes [resulting] in the synthesis of precious metals in exploding stars".

Hendrik Schatz, an associate professor of physics at the NSCL, explained: "Every gold atom you find in the gold on your ring, every one of those atoms has gone through such a process. We've now seen a link in the chain - one that controlled everything."

The NSCL team is also fired up about Ni-78's "doubly magic" properties, ie, "the number of protons and number of neutrons are in a subatomically tidy package that makes it easier to study". Doctoral student Paul Hosmer clarified: "It's like studying a bunch of cats and dogs. The groups are a lot easier to keep track of if they're in a pen. That, basically, is what being doubly magic is - an isotope with the protons and neutrons in defined pens. The 28 protons and 50 neutrons are more stable and less reactive when they're penned up."

Professor Schatz will present the NSCL findings at an American Physical Society meeting in Tampa, Florida, on Sunday. ®

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