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Home > Press > Shaking the electron has strengthened quantum mechanics

Beta decay
Beta decay

Abstract:
Atomic orbital electrons react to change of nucleus electric charge following each beta decay and to flying nearby particles emitted from the nucleus. NCBJ physicists have simulated such processes for the 6He nuclei. Theoretical calculations were recently confirmed by an experiment performed in the GAEN accelerator centre in Caen (France). That way the sudden approximation calculation method (one of the oldest methods employed to solve quantum mechanics problems) was directly validated.

Shaking the electron has strengthened quantum mechanics

Swierk, Poland | Posted on August 23rd, 2012

Decays of atomic nuclei are potential sources of information on fundamental phenomena occurring in the quantum world. Unfortunately it is a rather difficult task to model such processes. Yet NCBJ physicists have successfully simulated the process of neutron→ proton conversion in singly ionized 6He atom nucleus and correctly predicted its impact on the atomic orbital sole electron. Theoretical calculations were recently confirmed by an experiment performed in the GAEN accelerator centre in Caen (France). That way the sudden approximation calculation method (one of the oldest methods employed to solve quantum mechanics problems) was directly validated.

Nucleus of a 6He ion is composed of two protons and four neutrons. In a singly ionized ion the nucleus is orbited by a single electron. Surplus of neutrons makes such nuclei unstable, they undergo the so-called beta-minus decays in which one of the neutrons is transformed into a proton. To preserve electric charge, an electron is emitted from the decaying nucleus. Each emitted electron is accompanied by an electron anti-neutrino. In effect, a stable 6Li nucleus (still orbited by a single electron) is produced.

"During each beta-minus decay the orbiting (atomic) electron is impacted because of two reasons. Firstly, the total electric charge of the nucleus is changing since three protons are suddenly appearing in place of two protons. Secondly, a negatively charged emitted electron is flying nearby. It is plenty of stimulation for the orbiting electron: one might say that it is shaken very strongly. In result it is excited to a higher orbital or completely struck out of the atom" explains Professor Zygmunt Patyk from NCBJ.

Quantum mechanics uses wave functions to describe particles. The functions may be used to calculate probabilities that the particle will take some determined states.

"The 6He ion selected for calculations is almost a textbook case: single electron orbiting within a relatively simple potential well of the nucleus" said Dr. Katarzyna Siegień-Iwaniuk from NCBJ.

Electrons emitted by the decaying nuclei move at a speed close to the light velocity. They cross orbital electron clouds in times shorter than one billionth part of a nanosecond (i.e. 10-18 s). In quantum mechanics, problems in which interactions are so short are treated by finding a superposition of some final state wave functions (in our case: single electron within the 6Li ion) that jointly approximate the initial state wave function (in our case: single electron within the 6He ion). That trick is known as thesudden approximation method. It has been applied for many years (almost from the days quantum mechanics was born) but has never been directly verified in any experiment.

Professor Patyk's team has been collaborating with teams of physicists working in GAEN accelerator centre in Caen (Normandie, France) for several years. Calculations performed by NCBJ physicists to the accuracy of 4 significant places yielded the 2.3% probability that beta-decay will be liberating the sole orbital electron of the 6He ion, i.e. will be producing a totally ionized lithium atom. To a comparable accuracy that result was confirmed by some experiments performed at the French accelerator.

"Such a good agreement between theoretical predictions and experimental findings in such a simple (almost textbook) system is the first direct proof that the sudden approximation computational method utilized to solve quantum mechanics problems for almost a century is indeed correct" points out Professor Patyk.

NCBJ physicists have also managed to determine factors responsible for liberating the 6He sole orbital electron. The performed analyses have indicated that the ionization is caused in 99% cases by change of the nucleus total electric charge, and only in 1% cases by the fast electron emitted by the decaying nucleus.

The results co-authored by members of both collaborating teams were recently published in Physical Review Letters, a well-known scientific journal. The Polish team work was co-financed by a Polish Ministry for Science and Higher Education grant and by a Polish National Science Centre grant.

####

About National Center for Nuclear Research (NCBJ)
The Institute is a Polish state owned laboratory. It conducts pure and applied research on subatomic physics, i.e. elementary particle, astroparticle, plasma physics, low and high energy nuclear physics, and related fields. The Institute specializes in accelerator physics and technology, material research with nuclear techniques, the development of spectrometric techniques, nuclear electronics and also in applications of nuclear techniques to environmental research, nuclear medicine etc.

Apart from scientific departments, there is a separate production unit operating within the Institute - ZdAJ (the Establishment for Nuclear Equipment). This unit specializes in medical equipment, notably in the production of linear electron accelerators for oncology and in the production of linear accelerators for industry.

Main site of the Institute is located in Swierk, 30 km SE from Warsaw. There are also three scientific departments of IPJ located in Warsaw (Hoza Str. 69) and one scientific department located in Lodz (Uniwersytecka Str. 5).

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Contacts:
Marcin Sadowski
+48 22 71 80 123

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