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Making Fluorine

May 2, 2016

Neutrinos are ghostly particles that almost never interact with matter. In fact, trillions of them shoot harmlessly through your body every second. They were created by nuclear reactions in the Sun’s core. But astronomers recently uncovered evidence that these aloof particles play a role in creating an element that helps fight cavities: fluorine.

In one way or another, stars create most of the chemical elements. But fluorine’s exact origin has long been mysterious. For one thing, the element is difficult to see in stars. But a recent survey detected a fluorine-containing gas — hydrogen fluoride — in 51 stars. It’s by far the largest number of Sun-like stars in which the element has been seen. The stars have so much fluorine that the researchers say it must have been made in powerful stellar explosions. It was expelled into space, then incorporated into new stars.

When a massive star explodes, it produces an enormous number of neutrinos. These are so energetic that a few defy their ghostly nature and smack into atoms of neon. Neon is just a little heavier than fluorine, and massive stars make a lot of it before they explode. When a neutrino shoots through such a star, it can knock a proton or neutron off the neon atom’s nucleus, creating fluorine.

Detection of fluorine in more stars is necessary to confirm this scenario. But if it’s right, it means you can thank neutrinos — which normally don’t do anything — for the cavities you never got.


Script by Ken Croswell, Copyright 2015

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