A multinational group of scientists presents what they believe to be the discovery of an unusual nitrogen isotope, a significant finding that suggests the existence of the enigmatic nitrogen-9 nucleus.

According to the research team, which consists of scientists from China and the United States, the unusual nitrogen isotope has seven protons and just two neutrons. If verified, it might be the first instance of a nucleus decaying that releases five protons in the known universe.

The team's investigation of odd atoms, or exotic isotopes as physicists refer to them, is the focus of a study that was just published in Physical Review Letters. Exotic isotopes have more protons than neutrons as compared to most other atoms.

The two stable isotopes that make up 99.6% of natural nitrogen (7N) are nitrogen-14 and nitrogen-15. They are accompanied by three nuclear isomers and thirteen short-lived radioactive isotopes with atomic masses ranging from 9 to 23.

With a half-life of roughly ten minutes, nitrogen-13 is the most stable of these radioisotopes. Others, with isotopes lighter than nitrogen-14 decaying into carbon and heavier isotopes decaying into oxygen, typically have substantially shorter half-lives—some lasting less than a second.

Because nitrogen-9 has an isotopic makeup of seven protons and two neutrons, which means that more than half of its constituent parts are not securely bonded together, it is distinct among nitrogen isotopes. Nitrogen-9 may be the first example of an atom that can release five protons from its nucleus during decay, which is unusual in and of itself. This is due to its proton-rich nature.

The multinational team conducted its experiments at Michigan State University's National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory. There, they shot a highly concentrated beam of oxygen-16, a stable oxygen isotope, against a target made of beryllium. Following that, they succeeded in isolating a secondary atomic beam of oxygen-13, a comparable oxygen isotope, at a second beryllium target. Detections compatible with nitrogen-9 nuclei were made during the experiment.

Robert J. Charity, with the Department of Chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri (Credit: Washington Univeristy at Saint Louis).

Lead author Robert Charity, a Research Professor of Chemistry at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, and his co-authors investigated the energy of the decay products produced during the breakdown of nitrogen-9 based on these studies. The team reports in their research that the energy released during the decay of nitrogen-9 seems to fit well with current theoretical models that explain how these kinds of reactions could take place.

According to the team, "two peaks whose energies are consistent with the theoretical predictions of an open-quantum-system approach can be fit with the invariant-mass spectrum of [nitrogen-9's] decay products." "[However,] we cannot completely rule out the possibility that the spectrum contains only one resonancelike peak."

Essentially, the decay process of nitrogen-9 can reveal one or two distinct energy peaks at energies that align with current theories, contributing to a deeper comprehension of the behavior of atoms with drastically differing protons and neutron counts.

As of right present, it is known that some isotopes only release three protons. In a similar manner, carbon-8 and magnesium-18 decay by releasing four protons.

Nitrogen-9, if verified, would be the first isotope with such a unique combination of protons and neutrons—a nuclide—that decays into an alpha particle and its five protons.

Reference: Physical Review Letters

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