By: April Carson
James Vary, a theoretical physicist and co-editor of the Journal of Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics, has been waiting for nuclear physics experiments to confirm the existence of a "tetraneutron," which he and his colleagues previously proposed, predicted, and first announced during a presentation in the summer of 2014.
“Whenever we present a hypothesis, we must emphasize that it is awaiting experimental verification,” said Vary, an Iowa State University physics and astronomy professor.
Vary and his colleagues predicted the existence of the tetraneutron – four neutrons bound together without any protons – using a new class of models that take into account both the strong nuclear force that binds protons and neutrons together in an atomic nucleus and the repulsive electromagnetic force between protons.
The day has arrived for Vary and an international team of physicists in the case of four neutrons (extremely, very) momentarily joined together in a temporary quantum state or resonance.
A tetraneutron has been discovered by an international team led by researchers from Germany's Technical University of Darmstadt, which opens the door for new study and may lead to a more complete understanding of how the universe is built. This strange and unusual state of matter might also have industrial applications.
Neutrons, you may recall from science class, are subatomic particles with no charge that combine with positively charged protons to form the atom's nucleus. Individual neutrons aren't long-lasting, however, and after a few minutes they transform into protons. Double and triple neutrons don't align in a resonance, which is a state that would make them especially stable, and so they quickly decay as well.
But in 2002, physicists theorized that it might be possible to create a particle made up of four neutrons that would be more stable than two or three neutrons on their own. This "tetraneutron" would have a very different structure than other nuclei, and it would be a new type of matter.
Now, after years of searching, physicists believe they have finally found evidence of the tetraneutron. In a new study published in the journal Nature, an international team of researchers reports that they have observed signatures of the tetraneutron in a nuclear reaction for the first time.
The researchers predicted that four neutrons might form a resonant state with a lifetime of 3x10-22 seconds, approximately equal to 1 billionth of a billionth of a second, using supercomputing power at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. It's difficult to comprehend, but it's long enough for physicists to study.
The calculations of the theorists suggest that the tetraneutron should have an energy of about 0.8 million electron volts (a unit of measurement used in high-energy and nuclear physics - visible light has energies of about 2 to 3 electron volts.) The width of the plotted energy spike showing a tetraneutron was expected to be approximately 1.4 million electron volts according on the calculations. The theorists subsequently conducted research that suggested the energy would be between 0.7 and 1.0 million electron volts, with a width of 1.1 and 1.7 million electron volts. This sensitivity was caused by using several potential neutrino interactions in place of previous ones discovered earlier at lower energies (0.5 to 30 MeV).
The Radioactive Isotope Beam Factory at the RIKEN research institute in Wako, Japan, has discovered tetraneutron energy and width to be around 2.4 million electron volts, according to a paper published last month in Nature. These are both larger than theoretical expectations, but Vary said uncertainties in current theoretical and experimental findings might explain the variances.
"We can say that we have good evidence for the tetraneutron, but we cannot say that it is definitive," Vary said. "It is a very interesting signal, and we need to follow up."
“It’s a significant surprise to the nuclear physics world that one of these things can be measured before it breaks apart,” Vary added. “It's a really weird system.”
“It's a completely new state of matter,” he added. “It's brief-lived, but it points to possibilities. What happens if you combine two or three of these? Could you achieve more stability that way?”
In 2002, when the structure was suggested in certain reactions involving one of the elements, a metal known as beryllium, researchers began testing for a tetraneutron. In 2016, a team at RIKEN discovered indications of a tetraneutron in experimental findings published.
“The tetraneutron will become the second chargeless element of the nuclear chart, joining the neutron,” Vary stated in a project overview. “This provides a significant new platform for theories of neutrons' strong interactions.”
The new finding is important not just for what it reveals about neutrons, but also because of what it could mean for the stability of nuclei in general.
“We now know that there are various ways to make systems with more than four neutrons stable,” Vary said. “This opens up a whole new area of research in nuclear physics.”
The discovery of the tetraneutron — a correlated free four-neutron system — was announced in Nature by Meytal Duer and her colleagues from the Institute for Nuclear Physics at the Technical University of Darmstadt. The experiment's findings are considered to be a five-sigma statistical signal, denoting a genuine discovery with a one-in-three-and-a-half million chance that it is an accidental fluctuation.
The existence of the tetraneutron has been predicted theoretically for several years, but its detection has been elusive. Duer and her colleagues used a new type of reaction — inelastic scattering of cold neutrons off nuclei — to study the system's properties. This reaction produces neutrons that are emitted from the nucleus in a well-defined direction, allowing the team to infer the presence of the tetraneutron.
The findings were published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
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April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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