Researchers create super-obese hydrogen 7 atom

Atom-smashing at its finest produces exotic, short-lived, super-heavy version of hydrogen with six neutrons.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise Processors | Semiconductors | Web browsers | Quantum computing | Supercomputers | AI | 3D printing | Drones | Computer science | Physics | Programming | Materials science | USB | UWB | Android | Digital photography | Science Credentials
  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland

Sure, everybody's concerned that the United States citizens are overweight and Microsoft produces bloatware. But those problems are nothing compared to a sample of super-tubby hydrogen that researchers at a French particle accelerator created for a fleeting moment.

Physicists at the Grand Accelerateur National d'Ions Lourds (GANIL) on seven occasions created a version of hydrogen-7, a hydrogen atom with six neutrons instead of the customary zero. Results will be published in an upcoming edition of Physical Review Letters, according to the American Institute of Physics.

Deuterium, a hydrogen isotope with one neutron and one proton, is relatively common, and tritium, with two neutrons, is unstable and decays radioactively. The more neutrons are stuffed into the atom's nucleus, the more unstable the atom is.

Hydrogen-7 is so unstable that the physicists estimated its half-life to be 10 to the -21 seconds long--a thousandth of a billionth of a billionth of a second. After that, it flies apart into tritium and four separate neutrons. And even for its brief life, the atom must be forced into existence by adding energy--backwards from regular atoms, even unstable ones, which require energy to remove neutrons, not add them.

The researchers created the atom by shooting a beam of helium-8 atoms into a target made of carbon-12. Helium-8 is pretty wacky, too--it's unusually heavy and thought to consist of helium-6 with two extra neutrons orbiting outside the nucleus.