Where Do the Chemical Elements Actually Come From?

In recent times, one of the phrases that I find most interesting is “go back to where you come from”. Not only because I find it ludicrous that someone should be bound to the land on which they were born, but because – if the theory of evolution is to believed – we technically all come from the same place.

I know that makes me sound like an insufferable know-it-all, and when people say that they’re just basically being racist, but it’s true regardless. This is in fact the same for all lifeforms on Earth. We have what is called the Last Common Ancestor (LCA). Though what came before the LCA? What was there before the Earth existed? Where do the elements and molecules that make up matter come from? Before the materials that make up our planet came the elements and before the elements came the stars.

Early universe

In the early universe, shortly after the big bang, the universe was little more than a hot dense soup of quarks and electrons, with the former joining together to make protons and neutrons. As time progressed, these would eventually form atoms: mainly hydrogen and helium, which are the 2 smallest elements. That’s right, the thing we use to inflate balloons was one of the first things to exist in the universe. Anyway, shortly after – at least in the timescale of the universe – stars began to form due to gravity, and it was here where things started to get exciting.

The stars in their eyes

Within a star – including our own sun – during the main part of its lifetime, it will synthesise helium from hydrogen in a process called nuclear fusion. This is basically the fuel that our sun is running on. However, when stars run out of hydrogen, the helium begins to react to form heavier elements, and these heavier elements react to form even heavier elements. The process is called stellar nucleosynthesis and is essentially how most of the chemical elements came into existence.

Despite what you might have heard, size does matter, as the size of the star determines which elements are synthesized, as well as what happens towards the end of the stars lifetime. However, regardless of the star and how big it is (or isn’t), there is one definite fact: most of what we’re made of comes from stars. We are all literally made out of stardust.

 

Silhouette against the vastness of space. Source: Snapwire.

Insignificance

If nothing else, this really highlights how regardless of our background on this planet, we are all literally the result of random chance, circumstance and exceedingly high temperatures. It also highlights how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of the universe, how insignificant our tiny planet is and how insignificant our manmade borders are.

Upon the death of our star, the Earth will be consumed and return to stardust, assuming we haven’t somehow completely destroyed it before this point. Even further past the lifetime of our sun – as per a popular fate of the universe theory – the heat death of the universe will occur, meaning the eventual end of the components of our body is as a cold, thermodynamically inactive soup; quite the contrast from the early universe. The point being that we should really stop being so hostile to one another because the universe – based solely on its own existence – is going to return us all to nothing anyway.

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Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.