Neutron capture is a kind of nuclear reaction in which an atomic nucleus collides with one or more neutrons and they merge to form a heavier nucleus. Since neutrons have no electric charge they can enter a nucleus more easily than charged particles which are repelled by electrostatic repulsion.
Neutron capture plays an important role in the cosmic nucleosynthesis of heavy elements. In stars it can proceed in two ways - as a rapid process (an r-process) or a slow process (an s-process). Nuclei of masses greater than 56 can be formed by neutron capture that could not be formed by thermonuclear reactions, i.e. by nuclear fusion.
At small neutron flux, as in a nuclear reactor, a single neutron is captured by a nucleus. For example when natural gold (197Au) is irradiated by neutrons the isotope 198Au is formed in a highly excited state which then quickly decays to the ground state of 198Au by the emission of γ rays. In this process the mass number (the number of nucleons - both protons and neutrons) increases by one. In terms of a formula this is written 197Au(n,γ)198Au. If thermal neutrons are used we call it thermal capture.
The s-process mentioned above happens in the same way, but inside of stars.
The r-process happens inside stars if the neutron flux density is so high that the atomic nucleus has no time to decay via beta emission in between neutron captures. The mass number therefore rises by a large amount while the atomic number (i.e., the element) stays the same. Only afterwards, the highly unstable nuclei decay via many β- decays to stable or unstable nuclei of high atomic number.
The absorption neutron cross-section of an isotope of a chemical element is the effective cross sectional area that an atom of that isotope presents to absorption, and is a measure of the probability of neutron capture. It is usually measured in "barns" (b).
Absorption cross section is often highly dependent on neutron energy. Two of the most commonly specified measures are the cross-section for thermal neutron absorption, and resonance integral which considers the contribution of absorption peaks at certain neutron energies specific to a particular nuclide, usually above the thermal range, but encountered as neutron moderation slows the neutron down from an original high energy.
The thermal energy of the nucleus also has an effect; as temperatures rise, Doppler broadening increases the chance of catching a resonance peak. In particular, the increase in U-238's ability to absorb neutrons at higher temperatures (and to do so without fissioning) is a negative feedback mechanism that helps keep nuclear reactors under control.
Neutron activation analysis can be used to remotely detect the chemical composition of materials. This is because different elements release different characteristic radiation when they absorb neutrons. This makes it useful in many fields related to mineral exploration and security.
http://ie.lbl.gov/ng.html Thermal Neutron Capture Data
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