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Star Factories

April 12, 2007

A listener asks: Where do the heavy elements come from?


The origin of platinum and gold. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Listener Mae from San Francisco learned that stars burn by fusing atoms together to make heavier atoms—like hydrogen to helium and helium to carbon. But she also learned that stars don’t have enough energy to fuse elements heavier than iron, like gold, copper, and uranium. She asks:

MAE (listener):
So where are all our heavier elements from, then?

We turned to Virginia Tech chemist Joe Merola.

JOE MEROLA (Virginia Tech):
The only way to get that extra big blast of energy that’s required to take elements and make them even bigger and bigger and bigger is in the process of a supernova.

That’s when a massive star explodes as it dies. As supernovas are relatively rare, so are the atoms they make. Call 1-800-why-isit with your science question. If we use it on the air, you’ll win a Science Update mug. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.