Two international teams are competing to create the heaviest element in the universe. Super-heavy elements are the elements at the bottom of the periodic table with an atomic number (the number of protons) above 104. The previous heaviest element, temporarily called ununoctium, was "discovered" in 2002, and the two teams are now attempting to produce elements 119 and 120.
Jon Petter Omtvedt, a professor of nuclear chemistry at University of Oslo, is working with scientists from Western Europe, Japan and the United States, running experiments at the German GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung. The other team is made up of Russian and American scientists working out of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia. "The competition is razor-sharp," said Omtvedt. "Super-heavy elements are highly unstable and very difficult to create. It is like finding something unknown in outer space."
Manufacturing a single atom of a new element is not sufficient to be credited with discovering a new element. The results need to be replicated. "No one will gain any recognition until another laboratory manages to recreate the experiment. In the worst case, it may take several decades before the experiment has been verified," said Omtvedt. The heavier a super-heavy element is, the longer it takes to produce, and the shorter it will remain intact. A single atom of element 106 could be created within one hour when it was first discovered, and that atom decayers into lighter elements in 20 seconds. An atom of element 118 could be created in one month, and its half-life (the time before half of it decayed) was a mere 1.8 milliseconds.
Two weeks ago, nuclear physicists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, created 20 mg of the highly radioactive element berkelium. Each team vying to create element 119 was given 10 mg of berkelium. They will bombard a metal plate laced with berkelium atoms with a beam of titanium atoms. The teams are working on a tight schedule. Berkelium's half life is only 320 days, and once 320 days have passed, half of their sample will have decade into other elements. "It is extremely difficult to create intense titanium beams. To accomplish this, we have secrets that we will not share with others," said Omtvedt.
The basic principle of creating super-heavy atoms is simple: smash the atoms of one element into those of another and their protons will add up to create a new element. Titanium's 22 protons will join berkelium's 97 to create an atom with 119 protons, one atom of element 119. Most of the time, though, the atoms will collide and shatter or partially destroy each other. But rarely, "less than once a month," the protons will collide to create a complete atom. Detecting such a rare occurrence is a challenge. "You will have to detect this one atom on a metal plate where more than 100,000 superfluous events are occurring each second," Omtvedt said. The only way to detect the new atom is to observe the radioactive radiation it emits when it decays. There will be no evidence of the new element until it's already gone.
"We are working right at the cutting edge of what is experimentally possible," said Omtvedt. "In order to study the heaviest elements, we have to stretch the current technology to its utmost and even a little further."
"Berkelium's half life is only 320 days, and once 320 days have passed, half of their sample will have decade into other elements."
I think you meant "decayed" there.
They're getting closer and closer to the theoretical Island of Stability. An isotope of the 126th element, Unbihexium 316 is thought to be relatively stable.
Marty McFly: "Woah... Heavy..."
If a element cannot stick around in stability to what it is, how could it be a element in the first place.
Well, sure, I really do not know or understand the definition of what a true element.
It just seems odd that something only existed for 1.8 milliseconds and they can call that an element.
Science sees no further than what it can sense.
Religion sees beyond the senses.
All atoms consist of protons and neutrons in the nucleus and electrons in orbit around them. Each element is differentiated by the number of protons in it's nucleus, which determines the atomic number. Atomic number of 119 means there's 119 protons in it's nucleus. So basically, an element is an element because it's an element.
What happened to the "island of stability"? Back in the 70s they thought that heavier elements could be made that are stable if the outer shells are filled up. Has that idea been proven wrong?
Glad to see these experiments are still taking place. I hope they might consider naming a few new elements after famous chemists too.
For a new, very inexpensive and readable account of the elements and the periodic table see
Eric Scerri, A very Short Introduction to the Periodic Table, Oxford University Press, appearing on December 1st, 2011.
It contains a whole chapter on the superheavy elements.