Scientists make big leap in understanding the sun’s energy

A pictorial rendition of the proton-proton fusion chain in the sun. The fusion of a proton with beryllium-7 produces a boron-8 nucleus that later decays emitting neutrinos that can be detected on Earth. Credit: K. Kravvaris.

Scientists have made a big leap in understanding how the sun makes energy.

The sun and stars generate their warmth and light through a series of nuclear fusion reactions, kind of like extremely powerful and natural nuclear reactors.

One key step in this energy-making chain involves turning beryllium-7 into boron-8, a process that’s crucial for sending a specific kind of particle called neutrinos from the sun to us on Earth.

Recreating the sun’s fusion process on Earth to study it is incredibly difficult because it happens at such low energies, energies we can’t easily mimic in our labs.

So, researchers have to rely on their best guesses, using theories and calculations to fill in the gaps. This approach works, but it leaves a lot of room for doubt about whether they’ve got it exactly right.

However, there’s good news from a recent paper published in Physics Letters B. Scientists have come up with a new method that makes these guesses much more accurate.

By using data from higher-energy experiments that we can do on Earth, this new method helps to more precisely determine how often beryllium-7 fuses with protons to create boron-8 at the sun’s low energy levels.

The best part? This new technique is five times more accurate than what we had before.

This advancement doesn’t just help with this one reaction. It’s expected to improve our understanding of many other fusion reactions in the sun, leading to better predictions about how the sun behaves over time.

This is all part of the bigger picture of the standard solar model, which is our best description of the sun’s inner workings and life cycle.

The heart of this breakthrough involves a deep dive into the behavior of beryllium-7 and protons using a sophisticated model called the no-core shell model with continuum. This approach treats the structure and reactions of light nuclei in a unified way, which is pretty groundbreaking.

The researchers used a mix of different theoretical tools to get a clearer picture of this fusion process, ending up with a more reliable rate for how often these particles come together in the sun.

Their findings not only match up with the accepted values for this reaction rate but do so with much less uncertainty. This means we’re now closer than ever to accurately understanding the sun’s fusion process and, by extension, the behavior of neutrinos and the sun’s interior.

As this method gets applied to more reactions within the sun, we’ll continue to get a clearer and more accurate picture of how our star works, enhancing our knowledge of the universe.