The 14th International Conference on

Miniaturized Systems for Chemistry and Life Sciences

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One or more protons are present in the nucleus of every atom; they are a necessary part of the nucleus. The number of protons in the nucleus is the defining property of an element, and is referred to as the atomic number (represented by the symbol Z). Since each element has a unique number of protons, each element has its own unique atomic number.

Protons and neutrons are both nucleons, which may be bound together by the nuclear force to form atomic nuclei. The nucleus of the most common isotope of the hydrogen atom (with the chemical symbol "H") is a lone proton. The nuclei of the heavy hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium contain one proton bound to one and two neutrons, respectively. All other types of atomic nuclei are composed of two or more protons and various numbers of neutrons.

In 1886, Eugen Goldstein discovered canal rays (also known as anode rays) and showed that they were positively charged particles (ions) produced from gases. However, since particles from different gases had different values of charge-to-mass ratio (e/m), they could not be identified with a single particle, unlike the negative electrons discovered by J. J. Thomson. Wilhelm Wien in 1898 identified the hydrogen ion as particle with highest charge-to-mass ratio in ionized gases.

Rutherford knew hydrogen to be the simplest and lightest element and was influenced by Prout's hypothesis that hydrogen was the building block of all elements. Discovery that the hydrogen nucleus is present in all other nuclei as an elementary particle led Rutherford to give the hydrogen nucleus a special name as a particle, since he suspected that hydrogen, the lightest element, contained only one of these particles. He named this new fundamental building block of the nucleus the proton, after the neuter singular of the Greek word for "first". However, Rutherford also had in mind the word protyle as used by Prout. Rutherford spoke at the British Association for the Advancement of Science at its Cardiff meeting beginning 24 August 1920. Rutherford was asked by Oliver Lodge for a new name for the positive hydrogen nucleus to avoid confusion with the neutral hydrogen atom. He initially suggested both proton and prouton (after Prout). Rutherford later reported that the meeting had accepted his suggestion that the hydrogen nucleus be named the "proton", following Prout's word "protyle". The first use of the word "proton" in the scientific literature appeared in 1920.

The free proton (a proton not bound to nucleons or electrons) is a stable particle that has not been observed to break down spontaneously to other particles. Free protons are found naturally in a number of situations in which energies or temperatures are high enough to separate them from electrons, for which they have some affinity. Free protons exist in plasmas in which temperatures are too high to allow them to combine with electrons. Free protons of high energy and velocity make up 90% of cosmic rays, which propagate in vacuum for interstellar distances. Free protons are emitted directly from atomic nuclei in some rare types of radioactive decay. Protons also result (along with electrons and antineutrinos) from the radioactive decay of free neutrons, which are unstable.

In quantum chromodynamics, the modern theory of the nuclear force, most of the mass of protons and neutrons is explained by special relativity. The mass of a proton is about 80–100 times greater than the sum of the rest masses of the quarks that make it up, while the gluons have zero rest mass. The extra energy of the quarks and gluons in a region within a proton, as compared to the rest energy of the quarks alone in the QCD vacuum, accounts for almost 99% of the mass. The rest mass of a proton is, thus, the invariant mass of the system of moving quarks and gluons that make up the particle, and, in such systems, even the energy of massless particles is still measured as part of the rest mass of the system.

The internal dynamics of protons are complicated, because they are determined by the quarks' exchanging gluons, and interacting with various vacuum condensates. Lattice QCD provides a way of calculating the mass of a proton directly from the theory to any accuracy, in principle. The most recent calculations claim that the mass is determined to better than 4% accuracy, even to 1% accuracy (see Figure S5 in Durr et al.). These claims are still controversial, because the calculations cannot yet be done with quarks as light as they are in the real world. This means that the predictions are found by a process of extrapolation, which can introduce systematic errors. It is hard to tell whether these errors are controlled properly, because the quantities that are compared to experiment are the masses of the hadrons, which are known in advance.

The internationally accepted value of a proton's charge radius is 0.8768 fm (see orders of magnitude for comparison to other sizes). This value is based on measurements involving a proton and an electron (namely, electron scattering measurements and complex calculation involving scattering cross section based on Rosenbluth equation for momentum-transfer cross section), and studies of the atomic energy levels of hydrogen and deuterium.

Although protons have affinity for oppositely charged electrons, this is a relatively low-energy interaction and so free protons must lose sufficient velocity (and kinetic energy) in order to become closely associated and bound to electrons. High energy protons, in traversing ordinary matter, lose energy by collisions with atomic nuclei, and by ionization of atoms (removing electrons) until they are slowed sufficiently to be captured by the electron cloud in a normal atom.

Also in chemistry, the term "proton NMR" refers to the observation of hydrogen-1 nuclei in (mostly organic) molecules by nuclear magnetic resonance. This method uses the spin of the proton, which has the value one-half. The name refers to examination of protons as they occur in protium (hydrogen-1 atoms) in compounds, and does not imply that free protons exist in the compound being studied.

Research has been performed on the dose-rate effects of protons, as typically found in space travel, on human health. To be more specific, there are hopes to identify what specific chromosomes are damaged, and to define the damage, during cancer development from proton exposure. Another study looks into determining "the effects of exposure to proton irradiation on neurochemical and behavioral endpoints, including dopaminergic functioning, amphetamine-induced conditioned taste aversion learning, and spatial learning and memory as measured by the Morris water maze. Electrical charging of a spacecraft due to interplanetary proton bombardment has also been proposed for study. There are many more studies that pertain to space travel, including galactic cosmic rays and their possible health effects, and solar proton event exposure.


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