The periodic chart has over 100 known elements. There are eight different approaches to make them account for everyone

  • Only the lightest components of all were produced by the Big Bang, which began our Universe.
  • Almost all of the others were formed through the lives and deaths of stars over billions of years.
  • Other exotic processes, including as neutron star mergers and cosmic rays, are still needed to explain element production.

The ordinary matter of the Universe is made up of atoms

An electron orbits an atomic nucleus in this artist’s illustration, where the electron is a fundamental particle but the nucleus can be broken down into even smaller, more fundamental elements. The most basic atom is hydrogen, which is made up of an electron and a proton linked together. Other atoms have more protons in their nucleus, and the quantity of protons in the nucleus determines the type of atom.(Credit: Nicole Rager Fuller/NSF)

The amount of protons in the nucleus of every atom influences the properties of that element.

Every atom with more than one proton has a mixture of protons and neutrons bonded together in its nucleus. The negatively charged electrons revolving around the positively charged nucleus, as well as the physical and chemical properties of each element, are all controlled by the positively charged nucleus.(Credit: U.S. Department of Energy)

There are currently over 100 elements that can be sorted into a periodic table.

This periodic chart of the elements is color-coded according to the most common way(s) and process(es) by which the various elements in the Universe are formed. All unstable elements lighter than plutonium are produced naturally via radioactive decay, which is not depicted here.(Credit: Cmglee/Wikimedia Commons)

To make them all, only eight processes take place.

A visual history of the expanding Universe includes the hot, dense state known as the Big Bang and the growth and formation of structure subsequently. The full suite of data, including the observations of the light elements and the cosmic microwave background, leaves only the Big Bang as a valid explanation for all we see.(Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss)

Raw protons and neutrons fused together in the early stages of the hot Big Bang to form isotopes of hydrogen, helium, lithium, and beryllium, which are the lightest elements in the Universe. Because all of the beryllium was unstable, the Universe was left with only the first three elements before the birth of stars.(Credit: E. Siegel/Beyond the Galaxy (L); NASA/WMAP Science Team (R))

Only the lightest stable elements fuse this early, up to lithium (3).

The internal structure of a large star over the course of its life, culminating in a Type II Supernova when the core runs out of nuclear fuel. The ultimate stage of fusion is usually silicon-burning, which produces iron and iron-like elements in the core for just a short time before exploding into a supernova. Supernovae with a core collapse can efficiently create elements up to roughly atomic number 40, but not much higher. (Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller/NSF)

Massive stars are number two. The stars with the greatest mass have the shortest lifespans.

The location of several elements in Cassiopeia is seen in this image from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. A supernova remnant with silicon (red), sulfur (yellow), calcium (green), and iron (purple) as well as the overlay of all of these elements (top). Each of these elements emits X-rays in certain energy ranges, allowing for the creation of maps showing their location. (Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO)

They swiftly erupt into supernovae, releasing a plethora of elements ranging from carbon (6) to zirconium (40).

Hubble photograph of the open star cluster NGC 290. Because of all the stars that died before their inception, these stars can only have the qualities, elements, and planets (and maybe possibilities for life) that they have. The high-mass, brilliant blue stars that dominate its appearance indicate that this is a young open cluster. The fainter, yellower, and redder stars are more Sun-like, and while they will live longer, they will contribute various components to the Universe. (Credit: ESA and NASA; Acknowledgment: E. Olszewski (University of Arizona))

3) Low-mass stars are the third type of star. Sun-like stars grow into giants as their mass increases.

Free neutrons are created during high-energy phases of a star’s existence, allowing elements to be added to the periodic table one at a time through neutron absorption and radioactive decay. The s-process is used by both supergiant stars and giant stars entering the planetary nebula phase.(Credit: Chuck Magee)

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Slowly adding neutrons before death yields elements ranging from strontium (38) to bismuth (83).

The accretion scenario (L) and the merger scenario (M) are two distinct ways to create a Type Ia supernova (R). The merger scenario is responsible for the majority of not just the Universe’s heaviest elements, but also iron, which is the ninth most prevalent metal. (Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss)

4.) Explosions of white dwarfs. White dwarf explosions, also known as type Ia supernovae, are caused by accretions and mergers.

A type Ia supernova remnant, formed by an exploding white dwarf after accretions or mergers, will have a spectra and light-curve that are fundamentally different from core-collapse supernovae. They provide a different set of elements to the Universe than other types of supernovae.(Credit: NASA/CXC/U.Texas)

These produce elements ranging from silicon (14) to zinc (30).

Two neutron stars merge in the dying moments, emitting not just gravitational waves but also a catastrophic explosion that reverberates over the electromagnetic spectrum. At the same time, it produces a spate of heavy elements near the very top of the periodic table.(Credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick)

5.) Neutron stars merging. Kilonovae add a lot to the Universe.

Collision of two neutron stars showing electromagnetic and gravitational waves emitted during the merger process. The combined interpretation of multiple messengers allows it to understand the internal composition of neutron stars and to reveal the properties of matter under the most extreme conditions in our Universe. This process is, in fact, the origin of many of our heaviest elements.(Credit: Tim Dietrich)

They make the heaviest natural elements, ranging from niobium (41) to plutonium (94).

When a high-energy cosmic particle collides with an atomic nucleus, it can spallate, causing the nucleus to split apart. This is the overwhelming way in which the Universe makes new lithium, beryllium, and boron as it reaches the age of stars.(Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller/NSF/IceCube)

6.) Spallation of cosmic rays. Massive nuclei are blasted apart by high-energy cosmic particles.

High-energy astrophysical sources can produce cosmic rays that potentially reach Earth’s surface. Spallation occurs when a cosmic ray collides with a heavy nucleus, causing the original nucleus to split apart and produce lighter components. This technique produces significant amounts of three elements: lithium, beryllium, and boron.(Credit: ASPERA Collaboration/Astroparticle EraNet)

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Lithium (3), beryllium (4), and boron are created via spallation in the Universe (5).

Heavy, unstable atoms disintegrate radioactively, usually producing an alpha particle (a helium nucleus) or experiencing beta decay, as depicted below, in which a neutron transforms into a proton, electron, and anti-electron neutrino. Both of these types of decay change the atomic number of the element, resulting in a new element that is distinct from the original.(Credit: Inductiveload/Wikimedia Commons)

7.) Decomposition of radioactive materials. Some isotopes are unstable by nature.

Curium, element 96 on the periodic table (and incorrectly classified “Cu” rather than “Cm” above), is formed in some star cataclysms, but it decays before it can survive on planets like Earth. Many elements are created in this way by radioactive decay chains that are not produced in any other way.(Credit: BatesIsBack/Wikimedia Commons and Chloe Reynolds/UC Berkeley)

Technetium (43), prometheum (61), and several more elements heavier than lead are produced via decays (82).

Albert Ghiorso updates the periodic table by inscribing “Lw” (lawrencium) in space 103; codiscoverers Robert Latimer, Dr. Torbjorn Sikkeland, and Almon Larsh approve. It was the first element generated solely by nuclear processes in Earth’s atmosphere.(Credit: Public Domain/US Government)

8.) Human-made elements. The trans-plutonic (>94) elements are exclusively lab-made.

In order to create the heaviest elements possible, including ones that do not exist naturally, heavy ions are accelerated and collided. Element 118, Oganesson, holds the current record for being the only “noble gas” that is not gaseous at ambient temperature.(Credit: Joint Institute for Nuclear Research/MAVR facility/Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions)

Only human-caused nuclear reactions create them: all the way up to Oganesson (118).

The primary source of the abundances of each of the elements found in the Universe today. A ‘small star’ is any star that isn’t massive enough to become a supergiant and go supernova; many elements attributed to supernovae may be better-created by neutron star mergers.(Credit: Peroidic Table of Nucleosynthesis/Mark R. Leach)

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