Elemental abundances in quasistellar objects: Star formation and galactic nuclear evolution at high redshifts

Fred Hamann, Gary Ferland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

315 Scopus citations


Quasar (QSO) elemental abundances provide unique probes of high-redshift star formation and galaxy evolution. There is growing evidence from both the emission and intrinsic absorption lines that QSO environments have roughly solar or higher metallicities out to redshifts >4. The range is not well known, but solar to a few times solar metallicity appears to be typical. There is also evidence for higher metallicities in more luminous objects and for generally enhanced N/C and Fe/α abundances compared with solar ratios. These results identify QSOs with vigorous, high-redshift star formation - consistent with the early evolution of massive galactic nuclei or dense protogalactic clumps. However, the QSOs offer new constraints. For example, (a) most of the enrichment and star formation must occur before the QSOs "turn on" or become observable, on time scales of ≲1 Gyr at least at the highest redshifts. (b) The tentative result for enhanced Fe/α suggests that the first local star formation began at least ∼1 Gyr before the QSO epoch. (c) The star formation must ultimately be extensive to reach high metallicities; that is, a substantial fraction of the local gas must be converted into stars and stellar remnants. The exact fraction depends on the shape of the initial mass function (IMF), (d) The highest derived metallicities require IMFs that are weighted slightly more toward massive stars than in the solar neighborhood. (e) High metallicities also require deep gravitational potentials. By analogy with the well-known mass-metallicity relation among low-redshift galaxies, metal-rich QSOs should reside in galaxies (or protogalaxies) that are minimally as massive (or as tightly bound) as our own Milky Way.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)487-531
Number of pages45
JournalAnnual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1999


  • Absorption lines
  • Cosmology
  • Emission lines
  • Metallicity
  • Quasars

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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