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As far as I understand the number of protons in a nucleus is limited because Coulomb forces grow faster with the number of protons than the nuclear force. So alpha/cluster decay limits the size in this case.

But why can't we have nuclides with very numbers of neutrons? Is this limited by beta- minus decay?

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marked as duplicate by Bill N, Ben Crowell, Rob Jeffries, Kyle Kanos, Qmechanic May 2 at 2:52

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  • $\begingroup$ What's the limit on the number of protons? Where did you get that value? Or are you talking about the ratios of protons to neutrons? $\endgroup$ – Bill N May 1 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure you're taking enough account of the nuclear context in your description of the proton binding. The limit of the number of protons that form a stable nucleus without neutrons is ... one. Trying to say here is a limit for protons and over there is a separate limit for neutrons doesn't seem to be a very fruitful line of inquiry. The question is "What make nuclei stable?" and that (a) is complicated and (b) has already been addressed on the site (I believe, no link right off). $\endgroup$ – dmckee May 1 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ As for (a) would Bethe-Weizsäcker formula (asymmetry/Pauli term and pairing/spin-coupling) be a decent answer? $\endgroup$ – user1583209 May 1 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of Adding many more neutrons to a nucleus decreases stability? $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell May 1 at 23:02
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A simple neutron-containing nucleus might be a single neutron. But, neutrons are not stable (alone, they decay to proton + electron, 'beta-decay', with halflife about 10 minutes). So, a neutron-rich nucleus can also be expected to be unstable, and would give rise to a nucleus with an extra proton after a beta decay.

Carbon-14, for example, decays to Nitrogen-14 after a few thousand years, by beta decay.

Inside a nucleus, however, the decay of a neutron is less likely, because of the incorporation of that neutron into the mixed wavefunctions of the other protons and neutrons. That's why the Carbon-14 decay rate is rather slower than that of a single neutron.

If there's a nuclear proton count limit, it follows that neutrons (to fit into the nuclear shell model) associate with some number of protons to stay stable. On a shell-by-shell basis, the proton complement will eventually be used up, and the next shell of neutrons-only will decay.

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    $\begingroup$ This doesn't answer the question. OP is asking about limits, not about the effect of having an extra neutron. Carbon-12 is stable at Z+N. Carbon-13 is stable but has an extra neutron that's not needed for stability. $\endgroup$ – Bill N May 1 at 22:00
  • $\begingroup$ Inside a nucleus, however, the decay of a neutron is less likely, because of the incorporation of that neutron into the mixed wavefunctions of the other protons and neutrons. This has more to do with phase space. $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell May 1 at 22:53
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The answer is the forces. The nuclear force, the residual strong force, is holding the neutrons and protons together in the nucleus. Now, the strong force is short ranged. Actually, on the very short scale, it becomes repulsive (this keeps neutrons apart), and after a certain distance it is attractive (this keeps them still close in a nucleus).

Now, if you start having more and more neutrons, they will tend to decay into protons, because they are rather unstable. So your neutron rich nucleus will have to have protons too. This is a little bit more complicated, because the isospin of the neutron and the proton complement, and add an extra force to hold the nucleus together.

So there are three forces in the nucleus holding it together:

  1. residual strong force holding the neutrons and protons together

  2. isospin coupling makes nucleus with neutrons and protons more stable (then just neutrons)

  3. EM force keeps protons apart

Now the stability of your nucleus will depend on these forces, as long as they equalize out, it will be stable.

The problem is the range of these forces. The EM force is repulsive between the protons, and keeps them apart, but the strong force is relatively short ranged.

When you add more and more neutrons, you will grow in size. It is because the strong force is repulsive on very short scales. This keeps the neutrons and protons apart too. And the EM force keeps the protons apart too.

So when you grow in size, the nucleus gets bigger, and the residual strong force will after a while not be able to equalize out the EM repulsion. After you add more then 118 to 150 neutrons (and the protons needed because of isospin), the nucleus will fall apart.

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