Revelations about radioactive zirconium forge a new path in research about the universe

J. David Robertson

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Scientists have many “road maps” that guide them in respective fields of research by consolidating countless years of knowledge into a useful resource. The periodic table of elements, for example, serves as an important guide to understanding the relationships between elements and their roles in forming the universe. But imagine if one of these translational guides to nature’s elements was upended, revolutionizing our knowledge of the world at the atomic level. At the University of Missouri, researchers have done just that by revealing the largely unexplored potential of radioactive isotopes.

Knowing the probability of a chemical isotope’s nucleus “capturing” or absorbing a neutron provides researchers with fundamental information at the core of a vast number of scientific disciplines, from nuclear safety to understanding the origins of the cosmos. But this probability —known as a neutron capture cross section — is unknown for all but a few radioactive isotopes. In the case of one such isotope of zirconium, 88Zr, researchers have found that its cross section is the highest to be discovered in the last 70 years, a finding that suggests the many other radioactive isotopes that have yet to be similarly measured are potential sources of breakthroughs in our knowledge of the origins and composition of the universe.