The fundamental reaction that produces the huge amounts of energy radiated by the Sun and most other stars is the fusion of the lightest element, hydrogen, its nucleus having a single proton, into helium, the second lightest and second most abundant, with a nucleus consisting of two protons and two neutrons. In many stars the production of helium is followed by the fusion of helium into heavier elements, up to iron. The still heavier elements cannot be made in energy-releasing fusion reactions; an input of energy is required to produce them.
The proportion of different elements within a star—i.e., its chemical composition—is gradually changed by nuclear fusion reactions. This change is initially concentrated in the central regions of the star where it cannot be directly observed, but it alters some observable properties of the star, such as brightness and surface temperature, and these alterations are taken as evidence of what is going on in the interior. Some stars become unstable and discharge some transmuted matter into interstellar space; this leads to a change in the chemical composition of the interstellar medium and of any stars subsequently formed. The main problem concerned with the origin of the chemical elements is to decide to what extent the chemical composition of the stars seen today differs from the initial chemical composition of the universe and to determine where the change in chemical composition has been produced. Reference is made in this article to the chemical composition of the universe, but most of the observations refer to our own and neighbouring galaxies.
Cosmic abundances of the elements
The relative numbers of atoms of the various elements are usually described as the abundances of the elements. The chief sources of data from which information is gained about present-day abundances of the elements are observations of the chemical composition of stars and gas clouds in the Galaxy, which contains the solar system and part of which is visible to the naked eye as the Milky Way; of neighbouring galaxies; of the Earth, Moon, and meteorites; and of the cosmic rays.
Stars and gas clouds
Atoms absorb and emit light, and the atoms of each element do so at specific and characteristic wavelengths. A spectroscope spreads out these wavelengths of light from any source into a spectrum of bright-coloured lines, a different pattern identifying each element. When light from an unknown source is analyzed in a spectroscope, the different patterns of bright lines in the spectrum reveal which elements emitted the light. Such a pattern is called an emission, or bright-line, spectrum. When light passes through a gas or cloud at a lower temperature than the light source, the gas absorbs at its identifying wavelengths, and a dark-line, or absorption, spectrum will be formed.
Thus, absorption and emission lines in the spectrum of light from stars yield information concerning the chemical composition of the source of light and of the chemical composition of clouds through which the light has traveled. The absorption lines may be formed either by interstellar clouds or by the cool outer layers of the stars. The chemical composition of a star is obtained by a study of absorption lines formed in its atmosphere.
The presence of an element can, therefore, be detected easily, but it is more difficult to determine how much of it there is. The intensity of an absorption line depends not only on the total number of atoms of the element in the atmosphere of the star but also on the number of these atoms that are in a state capable of absorbing radiation of the relevant wavelength and the probability of absorption occurring. The absorption probability can, in principle, be measured in the laboratory, but the whole physical structure of the atmosphere must be calculated to determine the number of absorbing atoms. Naturally, it is easier to study the chemical composition of the Sun than of other stars, but, even for the Sun, after many decades of study, there are still significant uncertainties of chemical composition. The spectra of stars differ considerably, and originally it was believed that this indicated a wide variety of chemical composition. Subsequently, it was realized that it is the surface temperature of a star that largely determines which spectral lines are excited and that most stars have similar chemical compositions.
There are, however, differences in chemical composition among stars, and these differences are important in a study of the origin of the elements. Studies of the processes that operate during stellar evolution enable estimates to be made of the ages of stars. There is, for example, a clear tendency for very old stars to have smaller quantities of elements heavier than helium than do younger stars. This suggests that the Galaxy originally contained little of the so-called heavy elements (elements beyond helium in the periodic table); and the variation of chemical composition with age suggests that heavy elements must have been produced more rapidly in the Galaxy’s early history than now. Observations are also beginning to indicate that chemical composition is dependent on position in the Galaxy as well as age, with a higher heavy-element content near the galactic centre.
In addition to stars, the Galaxy contains interstellar gas and dust. Some of the gas is very cold, but some forms hot clouds, the gaseous nebulae, the chemical composition of which can be studied in some detail. The chemical composition of the gas seems to resemble that of young stars. This is in agreement with the theory that young stars are formed from the interstellar gas.
High-energy electrons and atomic nuclei known as cosmic rays reach the Earth from all directions in the Galaxy. Their chemical composition can be observed only to a limited extent, but this can give some information about their place of origin and possibly about the origin of the chemical elements.
The cosmic rays are observed to be proportionately richer in heavy elements than are the stars, and they also contain more of the light elements lithium, beryllium, and boron, which are very rare in stars. One particularly interesting suggestion is that transuranium nuclei may have been detected in the cosmic rays. Uranium is element 92, the most massive naturally occurring on Earth; 20 elements beyond uranium (called the transuranium series) have been created artificially. All transuranium nuclei are highly unstable, which would seem to indicate that the cosmic rays must have been produced in the not too distant past.
Direct observations of chemical composition can be made for the Earth, the Moon, and meteorites, although there are some problems of interpretation. The chemical composition of Earth’s crust, oceans, and atmosphere can be studied, but this is only a minute fraction of the mass of Earth, and there are many composition differences even within this small sample. Some information about the chemical properties of Earth’s unobserved interior can be obtained by the study of the motion of earthquake waves and by Earth’s magnetic field, which originates in the interior (see below Geochemical distribution of the elements).
Until recently, more was known about element abundances in distant stars than in Earth’s nearest neighbour, the Moon. The lunar landings have provided samples that have been intensively analyzed in many laboratories throughout the world. The data for the Apollo 11 material, collected in the Sea of Tranquility (Mare Tranquillitatis), are given in the Table. Analyses of Apollo 12 collections are similar for most of the elements. Comparison of the analytical data with those for carbonaceous chondrites (a type of meteorite that provides a good average sample of nonvolatile solar system material) shows that the lunar material has undergone marked geochemical fractionation (segregation of elements). Meteorites suffer from heating in Earth’s atmosphere, so that what is found on Earth is not necessarily the original chemical composition of the meteorites, especially for the volatiles, light gases that are easily lost. When allowance is made for the loss of volatile light gases and for effects of chemical separation, it seems quite possible that the overall chemical composition of Earth, the Moon, the Sun, and the meteorites is essentially the same and that they have a common origin.
Elements with an atomic weight given in square brackets have an atomic weight that is given as a range. Elements with an atomic weight in parentheses list the weight of the isotope with the longest half-life.
Sources: Commission on Isotopic Abundances and Atomic Weights, “Atomic Weights of the Elements 2015”; and National Nuclear Data Center, Brookhaven National Laboratory, NuDat 2.6.
If elemental abundances are the same in Earth and stars, isotopic abundances are likely to be the same. Theories predict the relative production of the different isotopes, and it is desirable to be able to compare these with observation. The study of terrestrial abundances of radioactive elements yields information about the age of the solar system, which is discussed below.
Summary of observations
The chemical composition of all objects in the universe is not quite the same, and not all elements can be observed in any one object, even if they are present. Nevertheless, the compositions of many objects are sufficiently similar to make it worthwhile to try to construct a typical table of abundances. Such compilations have been made by several authors and the best known is the work of the American physicists Hans Suess and Harold Urey. Although it dates from 1956, and later compilations differ in some details, its general character is not in dispute.
The main properties shown in the abundance table are quite clear. Hydrogen and helium are much more common than all of the other elements. There is a gradual decline toward higher atomic number with a great underabundance of lithium, beryllium, and boron. There is a significant peak in the region of iron, the element with the highest fractional binding energy, and the decline continues to higher atomic number with some subsidiary peaks. These peaks are associated with nuclei containing 50, 82, or 126 neutrons; the theory of nuclear structure predicts that these nuclei should be particularly stable, and these numbers are known as “magic” numbers.