Researchers in Germany produced element 112 in 1996, and now that it has been recognized by the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry, it will be the newest addition to the periodic table of the elements. It’s currently known as ununbium, Latin for ‘one-one-two,’ but it will be given an official name before it’s added to the chart.
The new element is one of only 22 elements that are man-made, and it’s 277 times heavier than hydrogen, making it the weightiest element on the periodic table. To make it, scientists at Germany’s Centre for Heavy Ion Research fused the the nuclei of zinc and lead. The atomic number 112 refers to the sum of the atomic numbers of zinc, which has 30, and lead, which has 82. Atomic numbers denote how many protons are found in the atom’s nucleus [Reuters]. Creating new elements isn’t just a why-not-do-it challenge: It has also helped researchers to understand how nuclear power plants and atomic bombs function [Reuters].
The same team that discovered the new element also discovered the elements with atomic numbers 107 through 111, which have already been named. To produce the element the scientists accelerated charged zinc atoms … with the help of a 120 metre long particle accelerator and ‘fired’ them onto a lead target [Daily Mail]. The two nuclei merged, forming the new element. Element 112 is very unstable–it decays milliseconds after it forms–and only four atoms of it have ever been observed. Other scientists had a difficult time re-creating 112 and therefore independently verifying its existence, which produced the lag time between the initial discovery and its acceptance onto the periodic table.
The last naturally occurring element was uncovered in 1925; Now, discovering new elements has become something of a friendly competition between scientists in Germany, the United States, Japan, and Russia. In 2006, the Russian scientists claimed the discovery of element 118. It was made by bombarding a californium target with a beam of calcium ions [BBC]. But the German team is hoping to one-up them, says team leader Sigurd Hofmann: “We tried the same experiment to get to element 120. We’ve not seen it yet, but we believe the element exists and, with a long enough beam time, it could be produced…. It’s certainly a race, and it’s nice to be first” [BBC].
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Image: flickr / Florian