What Is The Universe's Third Most Common Element? (2023)

The evidence for heavy elements exists all throughout the Universe, but hydrogen and helium are... [+] still the most common. What's number three? Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CXC/SAO.

In the earliest stages of the Universe, it was too hot to form neutral atoms or even atomic nuclei, as they'd immediately be blasted apart by a collision. By time the Universe had expanded and cooled enough that we could form stable nuclei, things were sparse enough that we wound up with 75% hydrogen, 25% helium and just 0.0000001% lithium, with nothing stable beyond that. For tens of millions of years, that's all the Universe would know, but once we started forming stars, all of that would change.

Today, the Universe is still overwhelmingly hydrogen and helium, but there's a new #3 in town, and lithium is nowhere close to it. The moment the first star is born, some 50-to-100 million years after the Big Bang, copious amounts of hydrogen start fusing into helium. The percentages of elements in the Universe start tipping away from light elements and towards heavier ones. But if we're looking for the third most common element, we need to look to the most massive stars: the ones more than about eight times as massive as our Sun.

Different colors, masses and sizes of main-sequence stars. The most massive ones produce the... [+] greatest amounts of heavy elements the fastest. Image credit: Morgan-Keenan-Kellman spectral classification, by Wikipedia user Kieff; annotations by E. Siegel.

(Video) What is the most common element in the universe?

They burn through that hydrogen fuel very quickly, taking just a few million years to run out of hydrogen in their cores. Once thecore is made entirely of helium, itcontracts down and starts fusing three helium nuclei into carbon! It only takes approximately a trillion (10^12) of these heavy stars existing in the entire Universe (which forms about 10^22 stars in the first few hundred million years) for lithium to be defeated.

An artist's impression of the environment in the early Universe after the first few trillion stars... [+] have formed, lived and died. Lithium is no longer the third most abundant element at this point. Image credit: NASA/ESA/ESO/Wolfram Freudling et al. (STECF).

For a very brief amount of time, carbon takes over for lithium as the third most common element in the Universe, but it doesn't last.You might think carbon will reign forever, since stars fuse elements in onion-like layers. Helium fuses into carbon, then at higher temperatures (and later times), carbon fuses into oxygen, oxygen fuses into silicon and sulphur, and silicon finally fuses into iron. At the very end of the chain, iron can fuse into nothing else, so the core implodes and the star goes supernova.

Fusing elements in onion-like layers, ultra-massive stars can build up carbon, oxygen, silicon,... [+] sulphur, iron and more in short order. Image credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller of the NSF.

(Video) Why the Ten Most Abundant Elements in the Universe are not the Same as on Earth

These supernovae, the steps leading up to them and even their aftermaths, enrich the Universe with all the outer layers of the star, which returnshydrogen, helium, carbon, oxygen, silicon, and all the heavier elements formed through a fewother processes:

  • slow neutron capture (the s-process), building elements up sequentially,
  • the fusion of helium nuclei with heavier elements (creating neon, magnesium, argon, calcium, and so on), and
  • fast neutron capture (the r-process), creating elements all the way up to uranium and even beyond.

Supernova remnants provide all the evidence we need to know that supernovae are responsible for... [+] providing the vast majority of heavy elements found in the Universe today. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

But we don't even have just this single generation of stars: we have many. The star systems that are createdtoday are primarily built out of not only the pristine hydrogen and helium, but the leftovers from previous generations. This is important, because without that, we'd never get rocky planets, only gas giants of hydrogen and helium, exclusively!

Gas giants have large envelopes of hydrogen and helium, but without heavier elements, they would not... [+] only have no rocky cores, but no other type of planet could exist. Image credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI).

Over billions of years, the process of star formation and star death repeats itself, although with progressively more and more enriched ingredients. Now, instead of simply fusing hydrogen into helium, massive stars fuse hydrogen in what’s known as the C-N-O cycle, leveling out the amounts of carbon and oxygen (with somewhat less nitrogen) over time.

(Video) The most common element in the universe: what is it? part 1

Additionally, when stars undergo helium fusion to create carbon, it’s very easy to get an extra helium atom in there to form oxygen (and to even add another helium to the oxygen to form neon), something even our paltry Sun will do during the red giant phase.

The Sun, today, is very small compared to giants, but will grow to the size of Arcturus in its red... [+] giant phase. A monstrous giant like Antares will be forever beyond our Sun's reach. Image credit: English Wikipedia author Sakurambo.

But there's one killer move that stars have that makes carbon a loser in the cosmic equation: when a star is massive enough to initiate carbon fusion -- a requirement for generating a type II supernova -- the process that turns carbon into oxygen goes almost to full completion, creating significantly more oxygen than carbon by time the star is ready to explode.

At the end of their lives, massive stars eject their outer layers back into the interstellar medium,... [+] enriching the Universe with elements beyond hydrogen and helium. Image credit: H. Bond (STScI), R. Ciardullo (PSU), WFPC2, HST, NASA.

When we look at supernova remnants and planetary nebulae — the remnants of very massive stars and sun-like stars, respectively — we find that oxygen outmasses and outnumbers carbon in each and every case. We also find that none of the other, heavier elements come close!

(Video) What is the most Common Element in the universe part 2

Yes, hydrogen is still #1 by a wide margin, and helium is #2 by a very large amount as well. But of the remaining elements, oxygen is a strong #3, followed by carbon at #4, then neon at #5, nitrogen at #6, magnesium at #7, silicon at #8, iron at #9, and sulphur rounding out the top 10. Lithium? It's down at about #30 by today.

The abundances of the elements in the Universe today, as measured for our Solar System. Image... [+] credit: Wikimedia Commons user 28bytes, under C.C.-by-S.A.-3.0.

What will the far future hold? Over long enough time periods, periods that are at least thousands (and probably more like millions) of times the present age of the Universe, stars will continue to form until the fuel is either ejected into intergalactic space, or until its completely burned as far as it can go. When this occurs, helium might finally overtake hydrogen as the most abundant element, or hydrogen may stay #1 if enough of it remains isolated from fusion reactions. Oxygen and carbon will continue to rise in abundance as well, and it's possible that if things work out just right, one of them will crack the top two.

The two brown dwarfs, shown here, will someday in the distant future spiral in and merge with each... [+] other, igniting fusion and creating heavier elements. Perhaps someday, through long-term processes like this, carbon or oxygen may even crack the top two elements in the Universe for abundance. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF.

The most important thing is to stick around, because the Universe is still changing! Oxygen is the third most abundant element in the Universe today, and in the very, very far future, may even have the opportunity to rise further as hydrogen (and then possibly helium) falls from its perch. Every time you breathe in and feel satisfied, thank all the stars that lived before us: they’re the only reason we have oxygen at all!

(Video) THE 10 MOST COMMON ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE

FAQs

What was the third element created in the universe? ›

In the beginning, or at least following the Big Bang more than 14 billion years ago, there was hydrogen, some helium and a little bit of lithium.

Why is oxygen the 3rd most common element? ›

The explanation is needed, because there are more stars (and more total mass in stars) that burn helium to carbon than there are stars massive enough to build oxygen.

What is the third most abundant element in the universe by mass? ›

Oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen and helium (by mass) and it's the most abundant element (by mass) in the Earth's crust, making up almost half of the crust's mass.

What is the 3rd most common element in the universe? ›

Oxygen is the third most abundant element in the Universe today, and in the very, very far future, may even have the opportunity to rise further as hydrogen (and then possibly helium) falls from its perch.

What is the 3rd element? ›

Matt Wilkinson on the extraordinary virtues of element number 3, Lithium.

Is Lithium the third most common element? ›

Lithium is present in the earth's crust at 0.002–0.006 wt%. It is the 33rd most abundant element in nature and is distributed widely in trace amounts in rocks, soils, and surface, ground, and sea waters.

What are the top three elements in the universe? ›

The majority of elements in the universe are gases. The first three most abundant elements in the universe are hydrogen, helium, and oxygen (in that order).

What is the third most abundant element in the atmosphere? ›

The most abundant naturally occurring gas is nitrogen (N2), which makes up about 78% of air. Oxygen (O2) is the second most abundant gas at about 21%. The inert gas argon (Ar) is the third most abundant gas at 0.93%.

What are the 4 most common elements? ›

Most common elements:
  • Hydrogen ( H ) , Helium ( He ) , Oxygen ( O ) , Carbon ( C ) , and Neon ( Ne ) are the five most abundant elements in the Milky Way galaxy.
  • Oxygen ( 46 % ) is the most prevalent element in the Earth's crust, followed by Silicon ( Si ) ( 28 % ) , Aluminum ( Al ) ( 8 . 3 % ) , Iron ( Fe ) ( 5 .

What are the 4 elements of the universe? ›

The Four Elements. Greek philosophy supposed the Universe to comprise four elements: Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. Air was originally supposed to be a component of the Æther [ether, not to be confused with the gas], the element that filled the Universe in the absence of the other three.

What are the elements of the universe? ›

The ten most common elements in the universe go hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon, neon, iron, nitrogen, silicon, magnesium, and sulfur.

Is oxygen the third most abundant element? ›

After hydrogen and helium, oxygen is the third most abundant chemical element in the known universe. It is the second most abundant element in the Earth's geosphere after iron and the most abundant element by mass in the Earth's crust — at about 47% to 49%.

What is the 2nd most abundant element in the universe? ›

Helium is the second most abundant element in the Universe.

What is the sixth most common element in the universe? ›

Element Abundance in the Universe
Atomic NumberElementMass Percent
1Hydrogen (H)73.9
2Helium (He)24.0
8Oxygen (O)1.0
6Carbon (C)0.5
7 more rows
27 Oct 2020

What are the five elements of the universe? ›

According to some traditions, everything in the universe comes from the five elements: wood, fire, earth, water, and metal. From the smallest atom to a giant whale to the solar system itself, all things are said to be composed of some combination of these elements.

How many elements are in the universe? ›

Answer and Explanation: There are 118 known elements in the universe, though only the first 92 exist naturally on Earth with all others being the product of nuclear fission.

How common is iron in the universe? ›

Abundances of the Elements in the Universe
Atomic NumberSymbolAbundance in the Universe (parts per billion)
26Fe1,100,000
7N1,000,000
14Si700,000
12Mg600,000
61 more rows

What is the 3 types of elements? ›

The elements can be classified as metals, nonmetals, or metalloids.

What are the Group 3 elements called? ›

Group III consists of two subgroups: group IIIb and group IIIa. Group IIIa consists of scandium, yttrium, and lanthanium, which is generally considered with the lanthanoids, and actinium, which is classified with the actinoids. Group IIIb, the main group, comprises boron, aluminium, gallium, indium, and thallium.

What are the three elements? ›

The three elements of nature, according to Heraclitus: earth, water, and fire, aka the three element theory.

How common is lithium in the universe? ›

This is the Universe we started off with: a Universe that was — by number of nuclei — about 92% hydrogen, 8% helium, and about 0.00000001% lithium. By mass, that's about 75-76% hydrogen, 24-25% helium, and 0.00000007% lithium. Pretty much all hydrogen and helium, any way you slice it.

What is the 4th most abundant element? ›

Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe. The first being hydrogen, followed by helium and oxygen.

Is lithium the most common element? ›

At 20 mg lithium per kg of Earth's crust, lithium is the 25th most abundant element. According to the Handbook of Lithium and Natural Calcium, "Lithium is a comparatively rare element, although it is found in many rocks and some brines, but always in very low concentrations.

What is the most common element in humans? ›

Oxygen is the most common element in the human body, comprising approximately 65.0% of body mass. Most of the oxygen present is found in the form of water.

What are the most important elements? ›

Scientists believe that about 25 of the known elements are essential to life. Just four of these – carbon (C), oxygen (O), hydrogen (H) and nitrogen (N) – make up about 96% of the human body.

What element makes 90% of the universe? ›

Today hydrogen is estimated to account for 90% of all atoms in the universe, and it is essential to the material world.

What is the third most abundant liquid on Earth? ›

If you are looking at the entire Earth, then water is not the most abundant liquid. Magma is first, liquid iron (as in core) is a rather distant second, and water is very distant third. Oil is fourth. If you look at just what sits above ground, absolutely no liquid is even a shadow of water.

What are the 3 most common gasses in Earth's atmosphere? ›

Earth's atmosphere is composed of about 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, 0.9 percent argon, and 0.1 percent other gases. Trace amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and neon are some of the other gases that make up the remaining 0.1 percent.

Why is hydrogen the most abundant element in the universe? ›

Hydrogen — with just one proton and one electron (it's the only element without a neutron) — is the simplest element in the universe, which explains why it's also the most abundant, Nyman said.

What are the 6 elements? ›

An element is a substance made of only one type of atom like carbon. Six elements are found in all organisms on Earth. Therefore, these six elements (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur) are called biological elements.

What are the 10 elements? ›

Answer: The first ten elements of the periodic table are hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine and neon.

What are the 6 elements of life? ›

The six most common elements of life on Earth (including more than 97% of the mass of a human body) are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulphur and phosphorus.

What is the 5th element of nature? ›

According to the five elements theory, everything in nature is made up of five elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Space.

What is the 4th element of nature? ›

The idea that these four elements—Earth, Water, Air, and Fire—made up all matter was the cornerstone of philosophy, science, and medicine for two-thousand years.

Why are the 4 elements important? ›

The four elements of FIRE, EARTH, AIR and WATER are the foundations of life. The heat of the sun, the earth beneath our feet, the air we breathe and the water we drink are essential to our existence. They exist in a harmonious balance and this balance is necessary for us and the planet to stay alive.

What is the first element in the universe? ›

The first elements — hydrogen and helium — couldn't form until the universe had cooled enough to allow their nuclei to capture electrons (right), about 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

What are the most common elements on earth? ›

Q: What is the most abundant element on Earth? A: Oxygen, which composes about 49.5% of the total mass of the Earth's crust, waters and atmosphere, according to the textbook “Modern Chemistry.” Silicon is second at 28%. Aluminum is a distant third, at only 8%.

What are the three most abundant elements in the Earth's crust? ›

We all know oxygen, silicon, and aluminum are common elements in the Earth's crust. They are also the three most common but in terms of the number of minerals that contain them, we find a somewhat different accounting.

How common is carbon in the universe? ›

Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the observable universe and the 15th most common in the Earth's crust. Carbon is produced in the core of stars when two helium nuclei collide to form highly unstable beryllium, which fuses with another helium particle to produce a stable carbon nucleus.

How common is nitrogen in the universe? ›

Nitrogen is the seventh most abundant element in the universe and is a major constituent of the atmosphere on Titan, the largest of Saturn's 62 moons. (Anomalies in the composition of Titan's atmosphere have led some to suggest that Titan might even harbor life forms).

What are the 7 most abundant elements? ›

  • On earth, oxygen is the most common element, making up about 47% of the earth's mass.
  • Silicon is second, making up 28%, followed by aluminum (8%), iron (5%), magnesium (2%), calcium (4%), sodium (3%), and potassium (3%).
  • All of the remaining elements together make up less than 1% of the earth's mass.

What is the eighth most common element in the universe? ›

The abundance of elements in the Sun and outer planets is similar to that in the universe.
...
Universe.
ZElementMass fraction (ppm)
1Hydrogen739,000
2Helium240,000
8Oxygen10,400
6Carbon4,600
7 more rows

What are the 6 most common elements found in living things? ›

The elements that are present in the highest quantities in living organisms are oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus. These elements make up about 99% of their living mass.

How many elements of life are there? ›

The four basic elements of life are: Oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and phosphorus. These four elements are found in abundance in both the human body and in animals. There are other elements that compose the human body, but the four we've highlighted participate in all life processes.

What are the 3 main elements? ›

From antiquity to the present day, we find the correlation between humans and the three elements, air, water and fire, from which the whole world is structured.

What was the first element created? ›

The first elements — hydrogen and helium — couldn't form until the universe had cooled enough to allow their nuclei to capture electrons (right), about 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

What are the three elements? ›

The three elements of nature, according to Heraclitus: earth, water, and fire, aka the three element theory.

What are the three elements of life? ›

The four basic elements of life are: Oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and phosphorus. These four elements are found in abundance in both the human body and in animals. There are other elements that compose the human body, but the four we've highlighted participate in all life processes.

What are the three 3 most important story elements? ›

You can use endlessly different story structures and styles, but each story or novel is going to boil down to three fundamental elements: character, setting, and plot.

What are the 4 elements in order? ›

The Four Elements in Ascending Order

Greek philosophy supposed the Universe to comprise four elements: Fire, Air, Earth, & Water.

Which 3 elements are found in all organic molecules? ›

The three elements that make up over 99 percent of organic molecules are carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. These three combined together to form almost all chemical structures needed for life, including carbohydrates, lipids and proteins.

Who created the universe? ›

Many religious persons, including many scientists, hold that God created the universe and the various processes driving physical and biological evolution and that these processes then resulted in the creation of galaxies, our solar system, and life on Earth.

How many elements are there? ›

Since then, the periodic table has evolved to reflect over 150 years of scientific development and understanding in chemistry and physics. Today, with 118 known elements, it is widely regarded as one of the most significant achievements in science.

What is the second element formed in the universe? ›

Helium is the second-most abundant element in the universe, after hydrogen, and accounts for about 25 percent of the atoms in the universe. Most of the helium in the universe was created in the Big Bang, but it also is the product of hydrogen fusion in stars.

What 3 elements make a fire? ›

Oxygen, heat, and fuel are frequently referred to as the "fire triangle." Add in the fourth element, the chemical reaction, and you actually have a fire "tetrahedron." The important thing to remember is: take any of these four things away, and you will not have a fire or the fire will be extinguished.

What are the 3 elements to be a genius and why? ›

So, defining genius isn't easy, but it's safe to say that intelligence, creativity, and outside-the-box thinking all play their part in making a genius a genius.

How many elements are there in 3rd group? ›

In the third group, elements are 32 . These elements are soft and their appearance is like silvery-white metals. Group third elements' hardness increases with atomic number. In the centre of the periodic table third group is placed in between the group 3 - 12 .

What are the 5 most common elements? ›

Most common elements:
  • Hydrogen ( H ) , Helium ( He ) , Oxygen ( O ) , Carbon ( C ) , and Neon ( Ne ) are the five most abundant elements in the Milky Way galaxy.
  • Oxygen ( 46 % ) is the most prevalent element in the Earth's crust, followed by Silicon ( Si ) ( 28 % ) , Aluminum ( Al ) ( 8 . 3 % ) , Iron ( Fe ) ( 5 .

What are the 5 most important elements? ›

1. Note that most living matter consists primarily of the so-called bulk elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur—the building blocks of the compounds that constitute our organs and muscles. These five elements also constitute the bulk of our diet; tens of grams per day are required for humans.

What is the most important element? ›

Carbon is the most important element to life. Without this element, life as we know it would not exist. As yo u will see , carbon is the central element in compounds necessary for life.

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