Scientists’ creation of a new “superheavy” element—the culmination of a nine-year project—may change chemistryby Philip Ball / October 17, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
After scientists ran out of “natural” elements to discover, they raced to make “synthetic” atoms
The periodic table of elements just got a new member. At least, maybe it did—it’s hard to tell. Having run out of new elements to discover, scientists have, over the past several decades, been making “synthetic” atoms, too bloated to exist in nature, which survive for just an instant before they splinter in radioactive decay.
But this is increasingly difficult as the atoms get bigger. The new element recently claimed by the Nishina Centre for Accelerator-Based Science, a Japanese research institute in Saitama, near Tokyo, has proven frustratingly elusive. It is known simply as element 113, its serial order in the periodic table, and efforts to create it have been underway since at least 2003.
These artificial elements are made and detected literally an atom at a time. The Japanese researchers claim only to have made three atoms in total of element 113, all of which decayed almost instantly.
If verified, it will add another member to the already substantial list of artificial elements assembled over the past seven decades of nuclear science. With each new addition to these “superheavy” elements, nuclear chemists have a fresh opportunity to test whether the periodic table—the organising scheme for all of chemistry—falls into disarray at such extremes, as some think it might. There is even a possibility that some elements out beyond 113 might be relatively stable, decaying so slowly that large amounts of them could be painstakingly accumulated for exotic applications.
The “natural’” periodic table runs from hydrogen (element 1) to uranium (element 92), each being distinguished from the others by the make-up of its atoms. Every atom has a super-dense core called a nucleus, surrounded by negatively charged particles called electrons. The nucleus contains positively charged particles, or protons, and—with the exception of hydrogen—neutral particles, or neutrons, which help to bind the protons together. It’s the number of protons that defines an element and determines its place in the periodic table.