Scientists Are One Step Closer to Solving the Mystery of Where Gold Came From

March 31, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Gold bars

There are just two possible sources in the universe, and neither is on Earth.

Michigan State University researchers, along with colleagues from the Technical University in Darmstadt, Germany, have zeroed in on an answer to one of astronomy’s most perplexing questions: Where did heavy elements, such as gold, come from?

No, your gold ring did not originate from a mine on Earth. Think much, much farther away.

In a paper recently published in the journal Physical Review Letters, researchers explained how they used computer models to try to answer this question.

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Currently, there are two candidates for where gold came from, neither of which are located on Earth. The first is a supernova, a massive star that when it dies, explodes under its own weight and releases large amounts of heavy elements into space. Second is a neutron-star merger, where two small but massive stars come together and eject huge amounts of stellar debris.

“At this time, no one knows the answer,” Witold Nazarewicz, a professor at the MSU-based Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) and one of the co-authors of the paper, said in a press release. “But this work will help guide future experiments and theoretical developments.”

By using existing data, the researchers were able to simulate the production of these heavy elements in both supernovae and neutron-star mergers.

“Our work shows regions of elements where the models provide a good prediction,” Nazarewicz, a Hannah Distinguished Professor of Physics who also serves as FRIB's chief scientist, said in the release. “What we can do is identify the critical areas where future experiments, which will be conducted at FRIB, will work to reduce uncertainties of nuclear models.”

FRIB, which is currently under construction, will allow scientists to make discoveries about the properties of rare isotopes. In doing so, they can gain a better understanding of the physics of nuclei and nuclear astrophysics, and use some of this knowledge for practical societal applications, including medicine and homeland security.

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