Neutrinos Yield First Experimental Evidence of the CNO Energy-Production Mechanism of the Universe

View into the interior of the Borexino detector.
Credit: Borexino Collaboration

Neutrinos Yield First Experimental Evidence of Catalyzed Fusion Dominant in Many Stars

An international team of about 100 scientists of the Borexino Collaboration, including particle physicist Andrea Pocar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, report in Nature this week detection of neutrinos from the sun, directly revealing for the first time that the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen (CNO) fusion-cycle is at work in our sun.

The CNO cycle is the dominant energy source powering stars heavier than the sun, but it had so far never been directly detected in any star, Pocar explains.

For much of their life, stars get energy by fusing hydrogen into helium, he adds. In stars like our sun or lighter, this mostly happens through the ‘proton-proton’ chains. However, many stars are heavier and hotter than our sun, and include elements heavier than helium in their composition, a quality known as metallicity. The prediction since the 1930’s is that the CNO-cycle will be dominant in heavy stars.

Neutrinos emitted as part of these processes provide a spectral signature allowing scientists to distinguish those from the ‘proton-proton chain’ from those from the ‘CNO-cycle.’ Pocar points out, “Confirmation of CNO burning in our sun, where it operates at only one percent, reinforces our confidence that we understand how stars work.”

Beyond this, CNO neutrinos can help resolve an important open question in stellar physics, he adds. That is, how the sun’s central metallicity, as can only be determined by the CNO neutrino rate from the core, is related to metallicity elsewhere in a star. Traditional models have run into a difficulty – surface metallicity measures by spectroscopy do not agree with the sub-surface metallicity measurements inferred from a different method, helioseismology observations.

Pocar says neutrinos are really the only direct probe science has for the core of stars, including the sun, but they are exceedingly difficult to measure. As many as 420 billion of them hit every square inch of the earth’s surface per second, yet virtually all pass through without interacting. Scientists can only detect them using very large detectors with exceptionally low background radiation levels.

The Borexino detector lies deep under the Apennine Mountains in central Italy at the INFN’s Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso. It detects neutrinos as flashes of light produced when neutrinos collide with electrons in 300-tons of ultra-pure organic scintillator. Its great depth, size, and purity make Borexino a unique detector for this type of science, alone in its class for low-background radiation, Pocar says. The project was initiated in the early 1990s by a group of physicists led by Gianpaolo Bellini at the University of Milan, Frank Calaprice at Princeton and the late Raju Raghavan at Bell Labs.

Until its latest detections, the Borexino collaboration had successfully measured components of the ‘proton-proton’ solar neutrino fluxes, helped refine neutrino flavor-oscillation parameters, and most impressively, even measured the first step in the cycle: the very low-energy ‘pp’ neutrinos, Pocar recalls.

Its researchers dreamed of expanding the science scope to also look for the CNO neutrinos – in a narrow spectral region with particularly low background – but that prize seemed out of reach. However, research groups at Princeton, Virginia Tech and UMass Amherst believed CNO neutrinos might yet be revealed using the additional purification steps and methods they had developed to realize the exquisite detector stability required.

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