ISOLDE experiments: from a new magic number to the rarest element

19 July 2013

Two teams working on experiments at CERN’s ISOLDE facility have published results that extend knowledge in different areas of nuclear and atomic physics. The ISOLTRAP collaboration has measured the masses of exotic calcium nuclei using the new multi-reflection time-of-flight (MR-TOF) instrument, while a team working at the resonant-ionization laser ion source (RILIS) has made the first determination of the ionization potential of the radioactive-element astatine. The results from the two experiments demonstrate well the versatility of the ISOLDE facility.

The ISOLTRAP team used the facility to make exotic isotopes of calcium, with the aim of finding out how their nuclear “shell structure” evolves with increasing numbers of neutrons. By integrating the MR-TOF system into the experiment, the team has made precise determinations of the masses of calcium isotopes up to 54Ca. While the new device has already been applied successfully as a mass separator, this first use as a mass spectrometer has already led to a key finding and promises further important results in the future.

The results strengthen the prominence in calcium of a “magic number” that was not foreseen in the original nuclear shell model, for which Maria Goeppert-Mayer and Hans Jensen received the Nobel prize in 1963, exactly 50 years ago. In this model, the protons and neutrons in a nucleus form independent “shells” that are similar to those of electrons in atoms. The magic numbers correspond to full nuclear shells, in which the constituents are bound more tightly, leading to greater stability and lighter masses. With 20 protons and 20 neutrons, standard calcium, 40Ca, is doubly magic, while the rare and naturally occurring, long-lived isotope 48Ca has 28 neutrons – another magic number. The measurements by the ISOLTRAP team indicate a new closed-shell structure in 52Ca and therefore a new magic number of 32 (Wienholtz et al. 2013). Its shell strength of about 4 MeV rivals that of the classic magic numbers.


These measurements cast light on how nuclei can be described in the context of the fundamental strong force, in particular in terms of predictions using state-of-the-art theory that includes three-body forces, from physicists at the Technical University of Darmstadt. Calcium is the heaviest isotopic chain for which three-nucleon forces – based on an effective field theory of QCD – have been applied. The ISOLTRAP results are in excellent agreement with the theoretical calculations and they show that a description of extremely neutron-rich nuclei can be closely connected to a deeper understanding of nuclear forces.

One of the strengths of the ISOLDE facility is the RILIS source, which produces many of the beams. At the source, bunches of protons at 1.4 GeV from CERN’s Proton Synchrotron Booster are fired at a thick target of uranium carbide or thorium dioxide. The collisions produce nuclei of many different elements, which diffuse inside a metal cavity held at around 2000°C. Shining overlapping laser beams of chosen wavelengths into this cavity results in the selective ionization of some of the neutral atoms inside. After electrostatic extraction and magnetic mass-separation, the result is a pure beam of one isotope that travels on to a detector.

The latest element to come under scrutiny at RILIS is astatine. With a half-life of just over eight hours for its longest-lived isotope, 210As, astatine is the rarest naturally occurring element and one of the least known. Now, a team at ISOLDE has measured the element’s ionization potential for the first time, giving a result of 9.31751 eV (Rothe et al. 2013).

The measurement fills a long-standing gap in the Periodic Table because astatine is the last element present in nature for which this fundamental property remained unknown. It is of particular interest because isotopes of astatine are candidates for the creation of radiopharmaceuticals for cancer treatment by targeted alpha-particle therapy. The experimental value for astatine also serves as a benchmark for theories that predict the atomic and chemical properties of super-heavy elements, in particular the recently discovered element 117, which is an astatine homologue.

These two results demonstrate beautifully the wealth of ISOLDE’s tool-box for exploring nuclear physics. They complement well the recent results on the shape of radon nuclei that were observed in post-accelerated beams.

Further reading

F Wienholtz et al. 2013 Nature 498 346.
S Rothe et al. 2013 Nature Communications 4 doi:10.1038/ncomms2819.

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