When radiochemist Jennifer Shusterman and her colleagues got the first results of their experiment, no one expected what they saw: Atoms of a weird version of the element zirconium had enthusiastically absorbed neutrons.

“People were quite surprised and we had lots of discussions,” says Shusterman, of Hunter College of the City University of New York.

The source of this fuss was zirconium-88. That’s a particular type, or isotope, of zirconium, distinguished by the number of neutrons it contains. Garden-variety zirconium typically contains about 50 neutrons, but zirconium-88, which is radioactive and not found naturally on Earth, has fewer than normal, with 48 neutrons.

When irradiated with low-energy neutrons from a nuclear reactor, each atom of zirconium-88 had a high probability of absorbing a neutron into its nucleus, causing the element to transform into another isotope, zirconium-89. The reaction was about 85,000 times as likely to occur as predicted, the researchers report online January 7 in Nature.

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