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False-colour scanning transmission electron micrograph of uranium atoms

A mixture of solitary and clustered uranium atoms (artificially coloured). Scientists have produced an ultralight uranium atom with only 122 neutrons. Credit: Dr Mitsuo Ohtsuki/Science Photo Library

Atomic and molecular physics

The world’s lightest uranium atom reveals nuclear secrets

A flyweight isotope of uranium helps to shed light on a fundamental form of nuclear decay.

The creation of the lightest uranium atom ever gives scientists a better understanding of a fundamental type of radioactive decay.

All elements have one or more isotopes, which differ from each other in the number of neutrons in their nuclei. Almost all naturally occurring uranium atoms contain either 143 or 146 neutrons.

Zai-Guo Gan at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Lanzhou and his colleagues have produced a uranium isotope with only 122 neutrons by firing a beam of argon at a tungsten target until atoms of each element fused together — an extremely rare event that formed uranium atoms. The team then extracted the 122-neutron isotope using a magnetic device called a separator.

All uranium isotopes undergo α-decay, a process whereby an atom loses two protons and two neutrons. Unexpectedly, the authors found that their ultralight isotope and a previously detected uranium isotope containing 124 neutrons decay more easily than do light isotopes of other elements. This suggests that interactions between protons and neutrons in atomic nuclei can have a greater role in α-decay than previously thought.

More Research Highlights...

Camera-trap image of Dendrohyrax interfluvialis

Some tree hyraxes scream in the night, but the newly identified Dendrohyrax interfluvialis (above, camera-trap image) utters a complex series of squawks, rattles and barks. Credit: J. F. Oates et al./Zool. J. Linn. Soc.

Zoology

A bark in the dark reveals a hidden hyrax

Its neighbours scream, but a new species of tree hyrax — a cousin of the elephant — unleashes a rattling bark.
Plastic and other debris floats underwater in blue water

Plastic detritus from snacks and meals floats in the Red Sea. Marine sampling shows that food waste accounts for nearly 90% of plastic pollution at some locales. Credit: Andrey Nekrasov/Barcroft Media/Getty

Ocean sciences

Humanity’s fast-food habit is filling the ocean with plastic

Food bags, drink bottles and similar items account for the biggest share of plastic waste near the shore.
Conceptual artwork of a pair of entangled quantum particles.

An artist’s impression of ‘entangled’ particles, which share properties even at a distance. Entangled photons can be used to help secure a multi-party video meeting. Credit: Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library

Quantum information

Quantum keys dial up tamper-proof conference calls

A new experiment efficiently distributes the highly secure keys to four parties instead of the typical two.
Farmers harvest pineapples in a field.

Workers harvest pineapples in Lingao County, China. Less than one-third of the money spent on food eaten at home reaches farmers. Credit: Yuan Chen/VCG/Getty

Economics

Poor harvest: farmers earn a pitiful fraction of the money spent on food

The bulk of consumer food spending around the world ends up in the coffers of distributors, processors and other parties beyond the farm gate.
A woman wearing a protective face mask splashes her hands in a jet of water

A pedestrian seeks relief from searing temperatures in Spain, where a high proportion of heat-related deaths have been linked to climate change. Credit: SALAS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Climate change

More than one-third of heat deaths blamed on climate change

Warming resulting from human activities accounts for a high percentage of heat-related deaths, especially in southern Asia and South America.
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