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The work is described in Nature Geoscience 10.1038/ngeo1205.
Radioactive decay is the loss of elementary particles from an unstable nucleus, ultimately changing the unstable element into another more stable element.
While the Kam LAND experiment cannot detect the lower-energy antineutrinos from potassium-40 decay, the researchers believe that the value predicted by the BSE model of 4 TW is correct.
Although 20 TW from uranium and thorium is more than the 16 TW predicted by the BSE model, it is still within the experimental uncertainty – and is much less than the total flux of 44 TW.
“One thing we can say with near certainty is that radioactive decay alone is not enough to account for Earth’s heat energy,” says Kam LAND collaborator Stuart Freedman of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California.
“Whether the rest is primordial heat or comes from another source is an unanswered question.” One possibility that has been mooted in the past is that a natural nuclear reactor exists deep within the Earth and produces heat via a fission chain reaction.
However, any instance where one particle becomes more frequent than another creates a nucleus that becomes unstable.
The most popular model of radioactive heating is based on the bulk silicate Earth (BSE) model, which assumes that radioactive materials, such as uranium and thorium, are found in the Earth’s lithosphere and mantle – but not in its iron core.Fortunately, these decay chains also produce anti-electron-neutrinos, which travel easily through the Earth and can be detected, thereby giving physicists a way to measure the decay rates and ultimately the heat produced deep underground.In 2005 researchers at Kam LAND announced that they had detected about 22 such “geoneutrinos”, while last year scientists at the Borexino experiment in Italy said they had detected 10.Very occasionally an antineutrino will react with a proton in the oil to create a neutron and a positron.The positron travels a short distance through the oil, giving off a flash of light as it ionizes oil molecules.