EDP Sciences
Free access
Volume 467, Number 1, May III 2007
Page(s) L15 - L18
Section Letters
DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.1051/0004-6361:20077274

A&A 467, L15-L18 (2007)
DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361:20077274


Thermohaline mixing: a physical mechanism governing the photospheric composition of low-mass giants

C. Charbonnel1, 2 and J.-P. Zahn3

1  Geneva Observatory, University of Geneva, chemin des Maillettes 51, 1290 Sauverny, Switzerland
    e-mail: Corinne.Charbonnel@obs.unige.ch
2  Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Toulouse et Tarbes, CNRS UMR 5572, Université Paul Sabatier Toulouse 3, 14 Av. E. Belin, 31400 Toulouse, France
3  LUTH, CNRS UMR 8102, Observatoire de Paris, 92195 Meudon, France
    e-mail: Jean-Paul.Zahn@obspm.fr

(Received 9 February 2007 / Accepted 12 March 2007)

Aims.Numerous spectroscopic observations provide compelling evidence for a non-canonical mixing process that modifies the surface abundances of Li, C and N of low-mass red giants when they reach the bump in the luminosity function. Eggleton and collaborators have proposed that a molecular weight inversion created by the 3He(3He, 2p)4He reaction may be at the origin of this mixing, and relate it to the Rayleigh-Taylor instability. We argue that one is actually dealing with a double diffusive instability referred to as thermohaline convection and we discuss its influence on the red giant branch.
Methods.We compute stellar models of various initial metallicities that include thermohaline mixing, which is treated as a diffusive process based on the prescription given originally by Ulrich for the turbulent diffusivity produced by the thermohaline instability in stellar radiation zones.
Results.Thermohaline mixing simultaneously accounts for the observed behaviour of the carbon isotopic ratio and of the abundances of Li, C and N in the upper part of the red giant branch. It significantly reduces the 3He production with respect to canonical evolution models as required by measurements of 3He/H in galactic HII regions.
Conclusions.Thermohaline mixing is a fundamental physical process that must be included in stellar evolution modeling.

Key words: instabilities -- stars: abundances -- stars: interiors -- hydrodynamics

© ESO 2007

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