The race to find even more new elements to add to the periodic table

The race to find even more new elements to add to the periodic table
The expanding periodic table of elements. Credit: Shutterstock/Olivier Le Queinec

In an event likely never to be repeated, four new superheavy elements were last week simultaneously added to the periodic table. To add four in one go is quite an achievement but the race to find more is ongoing.

Back in 2012, the International Unions of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) tasked five independent scientists to assess claims made for the discovery of elements 113, 115, 117 and 118. The measurements had been made at Nuclear Physics Accelerator laboratories in Russia (Dubna) and Japan (RIKEN) between 2004 and 2012.

Late last year, on December 30, 2015, IUPAC announced that claims for the discovery of all four new elements had been accepted.

This completes the seventh row of the periodic table, and means that all elements between hydrogen (having only one proton in its nucleus) and element 118 (having 118 protons) are now officially discovered.

After the excitement of the discovery, the scientists now have the naming rights. The Japanese team will suggest the name for element 113. The joint Russian/US teams will make suggestions for elements 115, 117 and 118. These names will be assessed by IUPAC, and once approved, will become the new names that scientists and students will have to remember.

The race to find even more new elements to add to the periodic table
The completed seventh row in the periodic table. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Until their discovery and naming, all (up to 999!) have been assigned temporary names by the IUPAC. Element 113 is known as ununtrium (Uut), 115 is ununpentium (Uup), 117 is ununseptium (Uus) and 118 ununoctium (Uuo). These names are not actually used by physicists, who instead refer to them as "element 118", for example.

The superheavy elements

Elements heavier than Rutherfordium (element 104) are referred to as superheavy. They are not found in nature, because they undergo to lighter elements.

Those superheavy nuclei that have been created artificially have decay lifetimes between nanoseconds and minutes. But longer-lived (more neutron-rich) superheavy nuclei are expected to be situated at the centre of the so-called "island of stability", a place where neutron-rich nuclei with extremely long half-lives should exist.

Currently, the isotopes of new elements that have been discovered are on the "shore" of this island, since we cannot yet reach the centre.

How were these new elements created on Earth?

Atoms of superheavy elements are made by nuclear fusion. Imagine touching two droplets of water – they will "snap together" because of surface tension to form a combined larger droplet.

Superheavy reaction fails to fuse. Credit: ANU

The problem in the fusion of heavy nuclei is the large numbers of protons in both nuclei. This creates an intense repulsive electric field. A heavy-ion accelerator must be used to overcome this repulsion, by colliding the two nuclei and allowing the nuclear surfaces to touch.

This is not sufficient, as the two touching spheroidal nuclei must change their shape to form a compact single droplet of nuclear matter – the superheavy nucleus.

It turns out that this only happens in a few "lucky" collisions, as few as one in a million.

There is yet another hurdle; the superheavy nucleus is very likely to decay almost immediately by fission. Again, as few as one in a million survives to become a superheavy atom, identified by its unique radioactive decay.

The process of superheavy element creation and identification thus requires large-scale accelerator facilities, sophisticated magnetic separators, efficient detectors and time.

Finding the three atoms of element 113 in Japan took 10 years, and that was after the experimental equipment had been developed.

The payback from the discovery of these new elements comes in improving models of the atomic nucleus (with applications in nuclear medicine and in element formation in the universe) and testing our understanding of atomic relativistic effects (of increasing importance in the chemical properties of the heavy elements). It also helps in improving our understanding of complex and irreversible interactions of quantum systems in general.

The Australian connection in the race to make more elements

The race is now on to produce elements 119 and 120. The projectile nucleus Calcium-48 (Ca-48) – successfully used to form the newly accepted elements – has too few protons, and no target nuclei with more protons are currently available. The question is, which heavier projectile nucleus is the best to use.

To investigate this, the leader and team members of the German superheavy element research group, based in Darmstadt and Mainz, recently travelled to the Australian National University.

They made use of unique ANU experimental capabilities, supported by the Australian Government's NCRIS program, to measure fission characteristics for several nuclear reactions forming element 120. The results will guide future experiments in Germany to form the new superheavy elements.

It seems certain that by using similar nuclear fusion reactions, proceeding beyond element 118 will be more difficult than reaching it. But that was the feeling after the discovery of element 112, first observed in 1996. And yet a new approach using Ca-48 projectiles allowed another six to be discovered.

Nuclear physicists are already exploring different types of nuclear reaction to produce superheavies, and some promising results have already been achieved. Nevertheless, it would need a huge breakthrough to see four new added to the at once, as we have just seen.

Explore further

Japan team to name element 113 in Asian first (Update)

This story is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution/No derivatives).
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User comments

Jan 05, 2016
The image is weird. It seems to suggest that there can be something like a solution of these super-heavy elements in a test tube but:

a) The number of atoms produced in these experiments is extremely small. Putting those in a solution would put the concentrations present in most homeopathic ointments to shame. So before anyone askes what we could practically use these elements for - the answer is: Nothing. Their value lies elsewhere (checking, validating and expanding our knowledge of nuclear forces)
b) These superheavies are all radioactive and extremely short lived. If they weren't they'd still be around in sizable numbers and would not need to be produced artificially.

Jan 06, 2016
You know the stability depends upon the containment. Also each stable atom has a mirror image, I should say reverse the "+" and "-" items, mirror image would be incorrect. So we should state an "earthly stability" so we don't confuse what is stable within a sun or a black hole. So first we must understand containment, what holds a neutron together, or should we say what field separates the electron and proton and what radiation is created during this separation. I mean does it spiral away, or move linearly, juz say'n.

Calculate the near field of each particle as a coulomb force, simple; forget the standard model, its wrong! Forget GR, fusion doesn't work that way, low energy, little steps so the particle can't fly away. A small gap, find it using coulomb. The "+" and "-" are identical only change the charge, no "earthly measured mass". Mass is a result of the fields.

Recall the discovery of anti-matter in a cloud chamber! jeez ...

Jan 06, 2016
Become smart, no wave-particle duality, waves from a particle wither it enters the slit or not. Speed of light, measure the speed a wave-let of known length passes a mark, i.e. Lambda_Emitted divided by 1/frequency_observed. No change of the constant Lambda Nu only a measure of the wave-front clearly defined. Jeeez. So give up all these foolish ideas. The hard part is finding what happens in very small amount of time or what happens in a very large "mass" of particles. Gravity

Jan 06, 2016
I don't have the tools, but think a simulation can be created using CAD, but ...

Not a new science, only a correction!

Remember, I told you so.

a hobbyist

Jan 06, 2016
What a fucking idiot.

Jan 07, 2016
Well, I'm (as we all are, I'm sure) still waitin' for Unobtainium...-:)

And, Wow, Hyper... You need to slow down on the caffeine, dude...

Jan 07, 2016
Information is free, dude! To become a thinker requires proper genetics, those who were last to come out of the last ice age, don't seem equipped with about 30,000 years, I figure if they can't walk out the ice to the south a little earlier then, then question! How were they relating to there environment. They always had a tinge of magic to there thinking. This disease spread throughout the world via barbarism that destroyed great kingdoms, now ask themselves, how were the pyramids built. So they could not read and thus destroyed the ancient worlds collection of information written Ancient Hieroglyphics. Give me a break upon your silly comments without thought. You have no idea what this impresses upon society or as a group working together. Why are you like this, really!?

Jan 07, 2016
Do a calculation using coulomb and your most popular measurement based upon the diameter of the electron and the proton. See where are the stable states. Simple algebra and geometry. Look at the field as you move backward in time, or simple geometry on the angle and location with a surrounding field. I call it containment it also implies non-containment. Based upon energy or simply vector velocity, etc. does one patent that! It needs to be out there to offer ways to use it, that allows patent. Screw the paper. This is my paper.

Jan 07, 2016
Idiot! You gotta be kidding! Then you are? LOL

I don't wanna do all that work? It's freaking obvious. This is a hell of lot more fun. I don't even want to get into capitalism. I rather a great "spirit" with a great "ba"; no need for money. An intelligent society... All who seek a high worth, ideas based upon the great pharaohs to know how to negotiate, to define value relative to the whole not the individual. Get it? Your definition of "Civilization" using a non civil measure? Not a persons worth, everyone has worth, what's wrong with that? We all work together for a common cause; but. that particular genetics, think about it. ???

Jan 07, 2016
Look at the future with truth and not lies and misinformation, see! And God forbid we continue with insulting people, teach the kids!

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