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Cosmic Connection

Physics professor Dr. George Perdikakis and his students are researching a potential link between elements in stars and the characteristics of the world around us. In collaboration with graduate students Pelagia Tsintari and Nikos Dimitrakopoulos and undergraduate students Lauren Ulbrich and Anna Tetzlaff, Dr. Perdikakis is working to connect the quantity of potassium 40, produced during a nuclear reaction, with the temperature of Earth’s mantle. This connection can reveal the possibility of human habitability in other solar systems.

Dr. Perdikakis and his team replicate conditions similar to the interior of a star by using an accelerator that collides helium ions with a potassium chloride target; this creates potassium 40, the result of a nuclear reaction that “lasts a billionth of a billionth of a millisecond or even less.” To verify that potassium 40 was produced, they study the characteristics of the emitted gamma radiation to see if it aligns with potassium 40 gamma radiation.

The accelerators consist of various devices that must be monitored to ensure the accelerated helium ions are continuously interacting with the potassium chloride target at the desired speed and angle, producing potassium 40. To accomplish this, collaboration across a multi-disciplinary set of team members is essential. The team divides into shifts and works 24/7 to ensure that the conditions remain the same. The process takes a well-prepared team of individuals interested in solving puzzles and better understanding nuclear reactions.

Dr. Perdikakis and his team will spend the next year analyzing the results from the accelerator and computer analysis. Once the results of the measurements are finalized, astrophysicists can use the information to predict the amount of potassium 40 within stars that may have planets habitable for humans, one of the concepts that inspired Dr. Perdikakis to pursue physics.

At CMU We Do Research, We Do Real World

Story by ORGS intern Brittney Rudat

June 2021