Researchers move closer to switching nuclear isomer decay on and off

April 6, 2007

Livermore researchers have moved one step closer to being able to turn on and off the decay of a nuclear isomer.

The protons and neutrons in a nucleus can be arranged in many ways. The arrangement with the lowest energy is called the ground state and all others are called excited states. (This is analogous to the ground and excited states of electrons in an atom except that nuclear excited states are typically thousands of times higher in energy.) Excited nuclear states eventually decay to the ground state via gamma emission or to another nucleus via particle emission. Most excited states are short-lived (e.g., billionth of a second). However, a few are long-lived (e.g., hours) and are called isomers.

Turning the decay on and off is key to using isiomers as high-energy density storage systems such as batteries.

Researchers at Livermore studied an isomer of Thorium-229. This isomer is unique in that its excitation energy is near optical energies, implying that one day scientists may be able to transition Th229 nuclei between the ground and isomeric states using a table-top laser.

"This would then be the first time human control would be exerted over nuclear levels," said Peter Beiersdorfer, an LLNL physicist and co-author of a paper that appears in the April 6 issue of Physical Review Letters. "This only works if the laser is tuned to exactly the correct energy."

For years, researchers have been fascinated with this isomer because it could lead to new science and technology breakthroughs. Among them are: a quantum many-body study; a clock with unparallel precision for general relativity tests; a superb qubit (a quantum bit) for quantum computing; testing the effects of the chemical environment on nuclear decay rates. Isomers also may serve as a battery for storing large amounts of energy.

However, before these exotic studies can be performed, an accurate determination of the isomer’s excitation energy above the ground state is needed. In the most recent research, Livermore scientists, along with colleagues from Los Alamos National Laboratory and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, have made the most accurate measurement of this energy difference using an indirect technique.

"Our measurement is more accurate and differs significantly from prior results. This may explain why scientists have failed to directly see this transition. Frankly, they were looking in the wrong place," said Bret Beck, an LLNL physicist and lead-author on the paper.

The next step will be to use a laser or a synchrotron tuned to the exact energy of the spacing between the two levels and observe the transition from the ground state to the isomeric state.

Once laser excitation has proven possible, helping an excited level decay (and thus give off energy) can be tackled. "But for building a more precise clock than we have today, or building a quantum computer, excitation may be all that’s needed," Beiersdofer said.

Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Explore further: Students' 2098 mpg fuel-efficient car gets top score in mileage challenge

Related Stories

Could 'windbots' someday explore the skies of Jupiter?

July 23, 2015

Among designers of robotic probes to explore the planets, there is certainly no shortage of clever ideas. There are concepts for robots that are propelled by waves in the sea. There are ideas for tumbleweed bots driven by ...

Controlling interactions between distant qubits

July 23, 2015

A big part of the burgeoning science of quantum computation is reliably storing and processing information in the form of quantum bits, or qubits. One of the obstacles to this goal is the difficulty of preserving the fragile ...

Where is solar power headed?

July 22, 2015

Most experts agree that to have a shot at curbing the worst impacts of climate change, we need to extricate our society from fossil fuels and ramp up our use of renewable energy.

Recommended for you

Two spin liquids square off in an iron-based superconductor

August 5, 2015

Despite a quarter-century of research since the discovery of the first high-temperature superconductors, scientists still don't have a clear picture of how these materials are able to conduct electricity with no energy loss. ...

The resplendent inflexibility of the rainbow

August 4, 2015

Children often ask simple questions that make you wonder if you really understand your subject. An young acquaintance of mine named Collin wondered why the colors of the rainbow were always in the same order—red, orange, ...

New device converts DC electric field to terahertz radiation

August 4, 2015

Terahertz radiation, the no-man's land of the electromagnetic spectrum, has long stymied researchers. Optical technologies can finagle light in the shorter-wavelength visible and infrared range, while electromagnetic techniques ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.