The proton is a subatomic particle with the symbol p or p+ and a positive electric charge of 1 elementary charge. One or more protons are present in the nucleus of each atom. Protons and neutrons are collectively referred to as “nucleons”. The number of protons in the nucleus of an atom 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 name proton was given to the hydrogen nucleus by Ernest Rutherford in 1920, because in previous years he had discovered that the hydrogen nucleus (known to be the lightest nucleus) could be extracted from the nuclei of nitrogen by collision, and was thus a candidate to be a fundamental particle and 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. Prior to that model becoming a consensus in the physics community, the proton was considered a fundamental particle. In the modern view, a proton is composed of three valence quarks: two up quarks and one down quark. The rest masses of the quarks are thought to contribute only about 1% of the proton’s mass. The remainder of the proton mass is due to the kinetic energy of the quarks and to the energy of the gluonfields that bind the quarks together.
Because the proton is not a fundamental particle, it possesses a physical size—although this is not perfectly well-defined since the surface of a proton is somewhat fuzzy, due to being defined by the influence of forces that do not come to an abrupt end. The proton is about 1.6–1.7 fm in diameter.
The free proton (a proton not bound to nucleons or electrons) is a stable particle that has not been observed to break down spontaneously to other particles. Free protons are found naturally in a number of situations in which energies or temperatures are high enough to separate them from electrons, for which they have some affinity. Free protons exist inplasmas in which temperatures are too high to allow them to combine with electrons. Free protons of high energy and velocity make up 90% of cosmic rays, which propagate in vacuum for interstellar distances. Free protons are emitted directly from atomic nuclei in some rare types of radioactive decay. Protons also result (along with electrons andantineutrinos) from the radioactive decay of free neutrons, which are unstable.
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.