116 and 114 can now officially be filled in.
What’s the News: On Wednesday, two new elements were officially welcomed to the periodic table.
The newcomers are elements 114 and 116, and they’ve just passed a three-year deliberation by the Joint Working Party on Discovery of Elements, a team of chemists and other scientists who sort through the evidence behind claims of newly discovered elements. These two don’t have official names yet, and for now they are going by the placeholders ununquadium and ununhexium, which refer to the number of protons in their nuclei.
How the Heck:
- Discovering elements these days means smashing nuclei together at incredible speed and waiting to see what the shattered remnants reassemble themselves into.
- The team that discovered 114 and 116 has been putting together a case for their discovery since 2004, when collaborating groups at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Russia and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California started ramming calcium nuclei (20 protons) into curium nuclei (96 protons) to see what would happen (answer: element 116). 116 decayed almost immediately into two protons and 114, which they also made from scratch by replacing curium with plutonium, which has 94 protons.
What’s the Context:
- The last element officially added to the table was element 112, copernicium, in 2010, after a series of experiments beginning in 1996 demonstrated its existence.
- Elements 113 and 115 are still unaccounted for (the numbers stand for the number of protons in the nucleus, not order of discovery, so there’s nothing particularly odd about this). Researchers have submitted reports on these elusive elements, but the committee decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to declare them found.
The Future Holds:
- Gone are the days when discovering an element meant refining loads of ore, seeing what cool new properties it might have, and going forth and creating glow-in-the-dark watch hands. These elements exist for less than a second before decomposing into lighter elements, and for that reason scientists know very little about what they are like.
- But their discovery means that we are getting closer to a place physicists call the “island of stability,” a kind of legendary paradise in the periodic table where elements suddenly become stable again. Nuclear physicists suspect this might happen once we reach 120 or 126. And who knows what properties those wonder materials will have? Only further work will get us closer to knowing.
- The new elements’ discoverers will get to pick permanent names for 114 and 116. And they can be just about anything the researchers want—“as long as it’s not something really weird,” says the Joint Working Party head (via New Scientist)