The triple alpha process is a set of nuclear fusion reactions by which three helium-4 nuclei (alpha particles) are transformed into carbon.
Older stars start to accumulate helium produced by the proton-proton chain reaction and the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen cycle in their cores. The products of further nuclear fusion reactions of helium with hydrogen or another helium nucleus produce lithium-5 and beryllium-8 respectively, both of which are highly unstable and decay almost instantly back into smaller nuclei. When the star starts to run out of hydrogen to fuse, the core of the star begins to collapse until the central temperature rises to ~100×106 K (8.6 keV). At this point helium nuclei are fusing together at a rate high enough to rival the rate at which their product, beryllium-8, decays back into two helium nuclei. This means that there are always a few beryllium-8 nuclei in the core, which can fuse with yet another helium nucleus to form carbon-12, which is stable:
The net energy release of the process is 7.275 MeV.
Because the triple-alpha process is unlikely, it requires a long period of time to produce carbon. One consequence of this is that no carbon was produced in the Big Bang because within minutes after the Big Bang, the temperature fell below that necessary for nuclear fusion.
Ordinarily, the probability of the triple alpha process would be extremely small. However, the beryllium-8 ground state has almost exactly the energy of two alpha particles. In the second step, 8Be + 4He has almost exactly the energy of an excited state of 12C. These resonances greatly increase the probability that an incoming alpha particle will combine with beryllium-8 to form carbon. The existence of this resonance was predicted by Fred Hoyle before its actual observation, based on the physical necessity for it to exist, in order for carbon to be formed in stars. In turn, prediction and then discovery of this energy resonance and process gave very significant support to Hoyle's hypothesis of stellar nucleosynthesis, which posited that all chemical elements had originally been formed from hydrogen, the true primordial substance.
As a side effect of the process, some carbon nuclei can fuse with additional helium to produce a stable isotope of oxygen and release energy:
See alpha process for more details about this reaction and further steps in the chain of stellar nucleosynthesis.
This creates a situation in which stellar nucleosynthesis produces large amounts of carbon and oxygen but only a small fraction of these elements is converted into neon and heavier elements. Both oxygen and carbon make up the 'ash' of helium burning. The anthropic principle has been controversially cited to explain the fact that nuclear resonances are sensitively arranged to create large amounts of carbon and oxygen in the universe.
Fusion processes produce elements only up to nickel (which decays later to iron); heavier elements (those beyond Ni) are created mainly by neutron capture. The slow capture of neutrons, the S-process, produces about half of these heavy elements. The other half are produced by rapid neutron capture, the R-process, which probably occurs in a core-collapse supernova.
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