Scientists Officially Decode Sun's Nuclear Fusion, the Universal Engine

A team in Italy confirmed a type of nuclear fusion in our sun via capturing and studying neutrinos.
Brad Bergan

Scientists successfully confirmed their comprehension of the Sun's nuclear fusion, for the first time, according to a new study published in the journal Nature.

This means we have the key to unlocking how stars — the life-blood of the universe as we know it — create the fundamental elements composing everyone and every planet, ever.


Scientists decode sun's nuclear fusion process, universal engine

The study showed how our star carries out a process called the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen (CNO) fusion cycle — which uses heavier elements than scientists thought a star of the sun's size would. Crucially, this confirms that the CNO cycle exists on an empirical basis — a task left undone since the process was first hypothesized in the 1930s, Futurism reports.

Earlier attempts to understand the sun's nuclear fusion reportedly generated mismatched data — since they came from indirect sources, according to a press release from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, reports Futurism.

Scientists had thought only large stars used CNO cycles

This comes on the heels of an earlier study in June, from the journal Nature — which first announced the detection of the crucial neutrinos. But it took several months for the team at the Borexino detector to confirm their results.

Inside a Borexino detector — an Italy-based underground facility — a team of more than 100 scientists noticed CNO neutrinos stemming from the sun — something scientists had thought only larger stars could muster, since they have much heavier elements than ours.

CNO type nuclear fusion difficult to detect in our sun

Most stars in existence are much larger than our modest yellow sun: Betelgeuse, a red giant star, is roughly 20 times more massive and roughly 700 times the diameter of the sun.

Larger stars are also much hotter than ours, which makes them powered mostly by CNO fusion — which fuses helium out of hydrogen via transforming atomic nuclei in a neverending loop between oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, NBC reports.

As the dominant source of energy in the universe, CNO is surprisingly hard to find inside our relatively mild-mannered sun — which comprises a mere 1% of its total energy.

Neutrinos are ideal for detecting long-range nuclear reactions

The colossal Borexino detector searches for neutrinos fired into space during nuclear fusion in the sun's unpleasantly hellish core.

Neutrinos are especially hard to study because they pass through most matter without any interactions whatsoever. But this is precisely why they are so fascinating — because they provide a source of information for nuclear reactions at a great distance.

Understanding the sun helps unlock universal mysteries

In fact, trillions of slippery neutrinos from our sun zoom through the Borexino detector every second, and it can only detect dozens per day — evidenced by faint flashes of light as the particles decay inside the worryingly dark 300-ton tank of water.

With an estimated diameter of 93 billion light-years, the observable universe is vast. But in all that space, amid an estimated 1 billion trillion stars, one relatively tiny facility in Italy detected just enough neutrinos from our modest yellow sun to unlock the universal engine behind every star — nuclear fusion, a form of power generation we may one day harness for our own energy needs.

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