The Fight to Fill Out the Periodic Table

Chemistry researchers around the world have been trying for years to discover the next elements in the periodic table. Last week, the chemistry world's main body approved the findings of four new elements, a feat one researcher said was better than winning an Olympic gold medal.

Filling out the seventh row of the periodic table of elements has not been an easy task, but the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry announced last week that groups of scientists around the world had pulled it off.

IUPAC, the nongovernmental entity that focuses on organizing and determining standards in chemistry, announced that four new elements—113, 115, 117, and 118—had been discovered by scientific teams working in Japan, Russia, and the United States.

“The chemistry community is eager to see its most cherished table finally being completed down to the seventh row,” said IUPAC’s Jan Reedijk, who heads the organization’s inorganic chemistry division.

The team at Japan’s RIKEN research institute was credited with discovering element 113, which is temporarily being called ununtrium, or Uut. Meanwhile, the Russian-American team—which includes researchers at Russia’s Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory—discovered the other three elements, including ununpentium or Uup (element 115), ununseptium or Uus (element 117), and ununoctium or Uuo (element 118).

The names are temporary for the moment, and IUPAC is asking those who discovered the elements to propose names and symbols for them. (Generally, elements are named after either mythological concepts, minerals, places, countries, properties, or scientists.)

Discovering these new elements has not been an easy task. When you get that far up the elemental scale, the half-lives of the elements get extremely short, requiring a high burden of proof. On top of this, none occur naturally, meaning the synthetic elements can only be created in labs.

For example, RIKEN had created ununtrium repeatedly since 2003, relying on a linear particle accelerator that beamed zinc ions into bismuth to create the new element. The complex work created an element that had a half-life of just 1/1000 of a second.

“To scientists, this is of greater value than an Olympic gold medal,” former RIKEN President Ryoji Noyori told reporters of the discoveries.

The work by the Japanese scientists is particularly notable, because it means they get to name the element—the first time an Asian team of physicists has won the honor. It’s possible that naming the element will be nearly as hard as creating it, because prior controversies have forced IUPAC to toughen its rules on how elements are named, according to Quartz.

Nonetheless, RIKEN isn’t resting after its feat. Kosuke Morita, who led the team of researchers at the facility, says that it has its eye on starting the next row.

“Now that we have conclusively demonstrated the existence of element 113, we plan to look to the uncharted territory of element 119 and beyond, aiming to examine the chemical properties of the elements in the seventh and eighth rows of the periodic table, and someday to discover the island of stability,” Morita said in a news release.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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