The Race to the Next Heaviest Element

There was news recently about some of the heaviest elements getting their new names. How did scientists discover those elements before anyone else? The University of Oslo has an interesting article on the current race to create elements 119 and 120 for the first time (the heaviest element produced to date is 118, temporarily named ununoctium). 

This kind of science is incredibly high pressure; it’s basically all or nothing. If you’ve spent long years of hard work trying to create this element but someone else beats you to it, your work is basically down the toilet. All research is sort of like this, but some types in particular are after one very specific end goal that only one team will get credit for. 

So what do they have to do to win?

The race to create element 119 started two weeks ago when the nuclear physics facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the USA produced 20 mg of the extremely radioactive substance, Berkelium. Berkelium, which must be created artificially in very special nuclear reactors, is heavier than Uranium and extremely difficult to produce in pure concentrations.

Each of the teams of scientists received 10 mg.

In order to create element 119, they will bombard a metal plate laced with Berkelium atoms with a beam of Titanium atoms. The Berkelium has to be used quickly before it disappears. Berkelium is a perishable substance. It has a half-life of 320 days; i.e. half of the Berkelium will have decayed into some other substance after 320 days…

The goal is to induce a Titanium atom to fuse together with a Berkelium atom.

Titanium has an atomic number of 22. Berkelium has an atomic number of 97. Together, these two atoms have a total of 119 protons; i.e. exactly the right number to create an atom of element 119…

“When the atoms collide with each other on rare occasions, they are usually merely shattered or partly destroyed in the collision.

“However, less than once a month, we will get a complete atom. The probability of doing so is lower than the chance of winning the jackpot in Lotto. The problem is that you will have to detect this one atom on a metal plate where more than 100,000 superfluous events are occurring each second.” …

The only way to do this is to measure the radioactive radiation at the moment when the atom decays.

“This means that we cannot detect the atom by measurement until it is gone. Not before that!” …

The surest way to detect the atom is to examine all of its “daughters” when it decays.
Such a chain of fissions may progress in five to eight steps. The scientists can only be certain that they have found the new element when the chain of reactions occurs in a particular way.

Damn. It sounds really difficult, although I’m glad it’s a simple enough idea for us laypeople to follow. Smash atom 97 and atom 22 together to make atom 119. This begs the question, of course, of why they’d pick this combination and not the other 50+ possible two-atom combos. I’m guessing that’s where the complications that we wouldn’t understand come in, so we’ll have to be happy with what we see here. 


One Response to The Race to the Next Heaviest Element

  1. Pingback: Two New Elements Named, and Some Notes on the Periodic Table « Science Picks

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