How It Works

Can adding protons make new elements?

The protons and neutrons of an atom’s nucleus are tightly bound by the nuclear force. Although it operates on a tiny scale, this is one of the strongest forces in nature, making it difficult for atoms to lose or gain protons. The situation is different under the extreme temperature and pressure at the heart of stars. Inside a young star, at over 10 million degrees Celsius (18 million degrees Fahrenheit), hydrogen protons fuse together to form helium. As the star ages, it begins to fuse helium nuclei, giving rise to beryllium and carbon. These heavier elements continue to fuse, gaining protons and forming everything from oxygen to iron. In fact, almost every element on Earth was created inside a star through this process. Particle accelerators can produce a similar effect by slamming extra protons into atoms. Many new elements have been created in this way, although they are usually highly unstable and only exist for a brief moment before decaying. Physicists have also produced radioactive isotopes, whose nuclei can lose a proton through radioactive decay, creating a new element.

Answered by Alexandra Cheung.