Older stars start to accumulate helium produced by the proton-proton chain reaction and the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen cycle in their cores. The products of further nuclear fusion reactions of helium with hydrogen or another helium nucleus (isotopes with mass number 5 or 8 respectively) are highly unstable and decay almost instantly back into smaller nuclei. When the star starts to run out of hydrogen to fuse, the core of the star starts to collapse until the central temperature rises to ~100 K. At this point helium nuclei are fusing together at a rate fast enough to rival the speed at which the product, Beryllium-8, decays back into two helium nuclei. This means that there are always a few Beryllium-8 nuclei in the core, which can fuse with yet another helium nuclei to form Carbon-12, which is stable:
The net energy release of the process is 7.275 MeV.
Because the triple-alpha process is unlikely, it requires a long period of time to produce carbon. One consequence of this is that no carbon was produced in the Big Bang because within minutes after the Big Bang, the temperature fell below that necessary for nuclear fusion.
Ordinarily, the probability of the triple alpha process would be extremely small. However, the beryllium-8 ground state has almost exactly the energy of two alpha particles. In the second step, 8Be + 4He has almost exactly the energy of an excited state of 12C. These resonances greatly increase the probability that an incoming alpha particle will combine with beryllium-8 to form carbon. The existence of this resonance was predicted by Fred Hoyle before its actual observation, based on the physical necessity for it to exist, in order for carbon to be formed in stars. In turn, prediction and then discovery of this energy resonance and process gave very significant support to Hoyle's hypothesis of stellar nucleosynthesis, which posited that all chemical elements had originally been formed from hydrogen, the true primordial substance.
As a side effect of the process, some carbon nuclei can fuse with additional helium to produce a stable isotope of oxygen and release energy:
See alpha process for more details about this reaction and further steps in the chain of stellar nucleosynthesis.
This creates a situation in which stellar nucleosynthesis produces large amounts of carbon and oxygen but only a small fraction of these elements is converted into neon and heavier elements. Both oxygen and carbon make up the 'ash' of helium burning. The anthropic principle has been controversially cited to explain the fact that nuclear resonances are sensitively arranged to create large amounts of carbon and oxygen in the universe.
Fusion processes produce elements only up to iron; heavier elements (those beyond Fe) are created mainly by neutron capture. The slow capture of neutrons, the S-process, produces about half of these heavy elements. The other half are produced by rapid neutron capture, the R-process, which probably occurs in a core-collapse supernova.
This strong temperature dependence has consequences for the late stage of stellar evolution, the red giant stage.
For lower mass stars, the helium accumulating in the core is prevented from further collapse only by electron degeneracy pressure. The pressure in the core is thus nearly independent of temperature. A consequence of this is that once a smaller star begins burning using the triple-alpha process, the core does not expand and cool in response; the temperature can only increase, which results in the reaction rate increasing further still and becoming a runaway reaction. This process, known as the helium flash, lasts only for minutes but burns 60-80% of the helium in the core and produces prodigious quantities of energy.
For higher mass stars, the helium burning occurs in a shell surrounding a degenerate carbon core. Since the helium shell is not degenerate, the increased thermal pressure due to energy released by helium burning causes the star to expand. The expansion cools the helium layer and shuts off the reaction, and the star contracts again. This cyclical process causes the star to become strongly variable, and results in it blowing off material from its outer layers.