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Isotopes of helium
Additional recommended knowledge
Natural helium isotopes
Although there are eight known isotopes of helium, only helium-3 and helium-4 are stable. In the Earth's atmosphere, there is one He-3 atom for every million He-4 atoms. However, helium is unusual in that its isotopic abundance varies greatly depending on its origin. In the interstellar medium, the proportion of He-3 is around a hundred times higher. Rocks from the Earth's crust have isotope ratios varying by as much as a factor of ten; this is used in geology to study the origin of such rocks.
The most common isotope, helium-4, is produced on Earth by alpha decay of heavier radioactive elements; the alpha particles that emerge are fully ionized helium-4 nuclei. Helium-4 is an unusually stable nucleus because its nucleons are arranged into complete shells. It was also formed in enormous quantities during Big Bang nucleosynthesis.
Equal mixtures of liquid helium-3 and helium-4 below 0.8 K will separate into two immiscible phases due to their dissimilarity (they follow different quantum statistics: helium-4 atoms are bosons while helium-3 atoms are fermions). Dilution refrigerators take advantage of the immiscibility of these two isotopes to achieve temperatures of a few millikelvins. There is only a trace amount of helium-3 on Earth, primarily present since the formation of the Earth, although some falls to Earth trapped in cosmic dust. Trace amounts are also produced by the beta decay of tritium. In stars, however, helium-3 is more abundant, a product of nuclear fusion. Extraplanetary material, such as lunar and asteroid regolith, have trace amounts of helium-3 from being bombarded by solar winds.
The different formation processes of the two stable isotopes of helium produce the differing isotope abundances. These differing isotope abundances can be used to investigate the origin of rocks and the composition of the Earth's mantle.
Exotic helium isotopes
A subset of exotic light nuclei, the exotic helium isotopes have larger atomic masses than helium's natural isotopes. Although all exotic helium isotopes decay with a half-life of less than one second, researchers have eagerly created exotic light isotopes through particle accelerator collisions to create unusual atomic nuclei for elements such as helium, lithium, and nitrogen. The bizarre nuclear structures of such isotopes may offer insight into the isolated properties of neutrons.
The shortest-lived isotope is helium-5 with a half-life of 7.6×10−22 second. Helium-6 decays by emitting a beta particle and has a half life of 0.8 second. Helium-7 also emits a beta particle as well as a gamma ray. The most widely-studied exotic helium isotope is helium-8. This isotope is thought to consist of a normal helium-4 nucleus surrounded by four neutrons dubbed a "halo" (6He also has a halo of neutrons). Halo nuclei have become an area of intense research. Isotopes up to helium-10, with two protons and eight neutrons, have been confirmed. Helium-7 and helium-8 are hyperfragments that are created in certain nuclear reactions.
Helium-2 is a hypothetical isotope of Helium which according to theoretical calculations would have existed if the strong force had been 2% greater.
|This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Isotopes_of_helium". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.|