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This article is about the proton as a subatomic particle. For other uses, see Proton (disambiguation).

The proton is a subatomic particle, symbol p or p+, with a positive electric charge of +1e elementary charge and mass slightly less than that of a neutron. Protons and neutrons, each with mass approximately one atomic mass unit, are collectively referred to as "nucleons". One or more protons are present in the nucleus of an atom. The number of protons in the nucleus is referred to as its atomic number. Since each element has a unique number of protons, each element has its own unique atomic number. The word proton is Greek for "first", and this name was given to the hydrogen nucleus by Ernest Rutherford in 1920. In previous years Rutherford had discovered that the hydrogen nucleus (known to be the lightest nucleus) could be extracted from the nuclei of nitrogen by collision. The proton was therefore a candidate to be a fundamental particle and a building block of nitrogen and all other heavier atomic nuclei.

In the modern Standard Model of particle physics, the proton is a hadron, and like the neutron, the other nucleon (particle present in atomic nuclei), is composed of three quarks. Although the proton was originally considered a fundamental particle, it is composed of three valence quarks: two up quarks and one down quark. The rest masses of the quarks contribute only about 1% of the proton's mass, however. The remainder of the proton mass is due to the kinetic energy of the quarks and to the energy of the gluon fields that bind the quarks together. Because the proton is not a fundamental particle, it possesses a physical size; the radius of the proton is about 0.84–0.87 fm.

At sufficiently low temperatures, free protons will bind to electrons. However, the character of such bound protons does not change, and they remain protons. A fast proton moving through matter will slow by interactions with electrons and nuclei, until it is captured by the electron cloud of an atom. The result is a protonated atom, which is a chemical compound of hydrogen. In vacuum, when free electrons are present, a sufficiently slow proton may pick up a single free electron, becoming a neutral hydrogen atom, which is chemically a free radical. Such "free hydrogen atoms" tend to react chemically with many other types of atoms at sufficiently low energies. When free hydrogen atoms react with each other, they form neutral hydrogen molecules (H2), which are the most common molecular component of molecular clouds in interstellar space. Such molecules of hydrogen on Earth may then serve (among many other uses) as a convenient source of protons for accelerators (as used in proton therapy) and other hadron particle physics experiments that require protons to accelerate, with the most powerful and noted example being the Large Hadron Collider.


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