the slow neutron-capture process, or s-process, is a series of reactions in nuclear astrophysics that occur in stars, particularly agb stars. the s-process is responsible for the creation (nucleosynthesis) of approximately half the atomic nuclei heavier than iron.
in the s-process, a seed nucleus undergoes neutron capture to form an isotope with one higher atomic mass. if the new isotope is stable, a series of increases in mass can occur, but if it is unstable, then beta decay will occur, producing an element of the next higher atomic number. the process is slow (hence the name) in the sense that there is sufficient time for this radioactive decay to occur before another neutron is captured. a series of these reactions produces stable isotopes by moving along the valley of beta-decay stable isobars in the table of nuclides.
a range of elements and isotopes can be produced by the s-process, because of the intervention of alpha decay steps along the reaction chain. the relative abundances of elements and isotopes produced depends on the source of the neutrons and how their flux changes over time. each branch of the s-process reaction chain eventually terminates at a cycle involving lead, bismuth, and polonium.
the s-process contrasts with the r-process, in which successive neutron captures are rapid: they happen more quickly than the beta decay can occur. the r-process dominates in environments with higher fluxes of free neutrons; it produces heavier elements and more neutron-rich isotopes than the s-process. together the two processes account for most of the relative abundance of chemical elements heavier than iron.