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The obvious answer is hydrogen and helium plasma but the nuclear fusion can also create heavier elements. Are these heavier elements a significant portion of the core? Do the heavier elements "sink" to the "bottom" of the core, like iron has during planetary formation?

Presumably, during the Sun's formation it would have accreted heavy elements made by previous generations of stars - does this just get added to the mix?

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    $\begingroup$ Funny, since I don't know the answer to this and I find the question interesting, I immediately started to research the question to find the answer and then I thought, has @dave already done this? And, if not, why not? Oh well, on with the search... $\endgroup$ – Alfred Centauri Jul 10 '14 at 22:57
  • $\begingroup$ My shotgun answer is "yes, heavier elements sink" resulting in an onion structure. I know for stars massive enough to fuse heavier elements, you get concentric shells of e.g. C&O,He,H, but I'm not sure the sun has enough heavy elements to talk about a core. My bet is on He core, maybe with >solar (mean) metallicity. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Oman Jul 10 '14 at 23:11
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The obvious answer is hydrogen and helium plasma but the nuclear fusion can also create heavier elements. Are these heavier elements a significant portion of the core?

As said in dmckee's answer, no, the core of the Sun is much too cool (about ~15 000 000 K) to burn any other than hydrogen into helium. The triple-alpha process, which converts helium into carbon, only kicks in somewhere around 80 000 000 K, depending on density.

That said, the CNO cycle does modify the internal abundances very slightly. That is, the CNO cycle is a catalytic process, so the abundances of those elements are driven to the values at which the reaction proceeds at an equilibrium rate. Glancing at a solar model I have lying around, this leads to about a 10% enhancement of the central nitrogen abundance, and a corresponding decrease of the carbon and nitrogen abundances.

Do the heavier elements "sink" to the "bottom" of the core, like iron has during planetary formation?

Actually, yes, they do! We refer to these processes as atomic diffusion. The one you're thinking of is known as gravitational settling. In short, yes, heavier elements "sink" towards the centre. This process takes a long time to make a meaningful difference: billions of years. For the metals, it isn't important, but it is actually important for the helium abundances. There was a minor revolution in the mid-1990's when this effect was included for the first time, and it led to a much better fit of solar models with respect to helioseismic observations.

Presumably, during the Sun's formation it would have accreted heavy elements made by previous generations of stars - does this just get added to the mix?

You're quite right: the Sun's initial composition reflected that of the nebula from which it was born, itself a product of whatever star(s) preceded it. The primordial mixture is expected to be fully mixed before a star starts burning hydrogen into helium. The reason is that the star (or, at least, our models) goes through a phase where the whole star is convective, so everything gets churned up and homogenized.

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Herein a filler answer until one of our experts gets around to giving us a more detailed picture.


The short answer remains "hydrogen and helium", plus what every metalicity the star started with.

The reason is that at the temperatures of the sun's core production of the next stable step (carbon) is many orders of magnitude slower than helium production. Many.

Right now the density and temperature of the core are regulated by the energy input of helium production and the the energy loss mechanism of radiative transport. When energy production from hydrogen burning starts to drop off the core will contract and heat up bringing the energy production back up. When the hydrogen is effectively gone that contraction and heating will proceed until it is hot enough for the triple alpha cycle and carbon production will begin in earnest.


See the answers to What causes the dimensions of a star increase when its hydrogen fuel is exhausted? for some more quantitative data on these processes.

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protected by Qmechanic Feb 16 '15 at 14:52

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