Today, a new post in this fascinating Cosmology thread…
The Big Bang Nucleosynthesis in a nutshell
When the Universe was young, about , the following events happen
1st. Some particles remained in thermodynamical equilibrium with the primordial plasma (photons, positrons and electrons, i.e., , , ).
2nd. Some relativistic particles decoupled, the neutrinos! And the neutrinos are a very important particle there (the “power” is even more mysterious since the discovery of the neutrino flavor oscillations).
3rd. Some non relativistic particles, the baryons, experienced a strong and subtle asymmetry. Even if we do not understand the physics behind this initial baryon asymmetry, it is important to explain the current Universe. The initial baryon asymmetry is estimated to be
At , the baryon number was very large compared with the number of antibaryons. The reason or explanation of this fact is not well understood, but there are some interesting ideas for this asymmetric baryogenesis coming from leptogenesis. I will not discuss this fascinating topic today. Moreover, the fraction or ratio between the baryon density and the photon density is known to be the quantity
In that moment, the question is: how the baryons end up? The answer is pretty simple. There are two main ideas:
1) The thermal equilibrium is kept thorugh out the whole phase in the early Universe. It means that the nuclear state will be the one with the lowest energy per baryon. That is, the most stable nucleus is iron (Fe), but, in fact, most of the baryons end up in hydrogen (H) or Helium (He).
2) Simple nucleosynthesis is based on 2 elementary ideas and simplifications. Firstly, no element heavier than helium are produced at high ratios. Therefore, this means that protons(p), neutrons(n), the deuterium(D), the tritium (T), Helium-3 () and Helium-4 () are the main subproducts of Big Bang Nucleosynthesis in this standard scenario. Sedondly, until the Universe froze below , no light nuclei could form and there were only a “primordial soup” made of protons and neutrons. The neutron to proton ratio IS an input for the synthesis of D, T, , and . Indeed, the 0.1 MeV temperature is relatively low considering the typical nuclear binding energy, about some MeV’s. We could have some quantities of “heavy” elements, but this effect is small, at the level of , i.e., the effect of large number of photons compared to the number of baryons is comparable to the number of baryons and heavy elements beyond helium isotopes. We can loot at this effec in the deuterium (D) production:
where the reaction is taken in the thermal equilibrium and . In this equilibrium, we get
and where , and is the binding energy of deuterium (D). Indeed, we get and so . Moreover we also get
and the exponential “compensates” and , since the smal factor must be chosen to be smaller than the binding energy to temperature ratio .
By the other hand, the nuetron abundance can be also estimated. From a simple proton-neutron conversion, we obtain
due to the weak interaction! The proton/neutron equilibrium ratio for temperatures greater than 1MeV becomes
where . In fact, the exponential will not be maintained below and we define the neutron fraction as follows. Firstly
In equilibrium, this becomes
Boltzmann equation for the process can be easily derived
Therefore, we obtain
and from the LHS, we calculate
By the other hand, from the RHS
Thus, implies that
If we change the variable , then we write
and is the neutron lifetime, i.e.
The numerical integration of these equations provides the following qualitative sketch for :
such as the deuterium production is done through the processes
and it started at about and
The light element abundances
A good approximation is to consider that light element production happens instantaneously at . Of course, the issue is…How could we determine that temperature? If we measure the abundance of deuterium abundance today, and the baryon abundance today (i.e., if we know their current densities), we can use the cosmological equations to deduce the ratio
Then, we obtain from these equations and the measured densities that
Moreover, since , it implies that helium-4 () production is favoured by BBN! It means that all neutron are processed inside helium-4 or hydrogen. In fact, the helium-4 abundance is known to be
We can compare this with an exact solution for the “yield”
The observed helium-4 abundance is in good agreement with the theoretical expectations from the Standard Cosmological Model! What an awesome hit! We can also compare this with the primordial helium abundances from cosmological observations
Thus, we have learned that the deuterium abundance IS a powerful probe of the baryon density!!!!
Remark: Nowadays, there is a problem with the lithium-7 abundances in stars. The origin of the discrepancy is not known, as far as I know. Then, the primordial lithium abundance is a controversial topic in modern Cosmology, so we understand BBN only as an overall picture, and some details need to be improved in the next years.