THE BLOG
08/28/2013 06:45 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2013

Why All the Fuss Over a New Element?

Recently a new element has been in the news again. It's element 115 that doesn't even have a name yet. It was first created artificially a few years ago but only now is there enough experimental evidence on it for scientists to begin to take it seriously and to give it its name and its own symbols. The number 115 stands for the number of protons or positively charged particles that are packed into its nucleus. As atoms go, 115 is really very heavy and as a result this element is very unstable and only lasts for a fraction of a second before decaying radioactively into less heavy atoms. More familiar elements like oxygen, iron or gold have nuclei that contain 8, 26 and 79 protons respectively. The way in which heavy atoms like those of element 115 are created involves large experimental set ups, not altogether unlike the labs that recently succeeded in finding evidence for the much awaited Higgs particle.

One may wonder, "Does the new element have any commercial applications?" Well of course the answer is no, partly because it is so unstable. So what's the use in even trying to make it and why all the fuss about these new highly unstable atoms? The answer lies in the advancement of science. Chemists and physicists have now developed theories of stable atoms and have a pretty good understanding of how they function. This is not so true in the case of heavier atoms. So one of the reasons why large amounts of money are invested into making these heavy elements is that they provide a testing ground for new theories of the stability of heavy nuclei. These theories combine quantum mechanics and the special theory of relativity, two of the most successful and far-reaching theories that have ever been developed in science.

In fact even heavier atoms than those of element 115 have been produced although most of them still lack experimental verification. The very next element after 115, or 116 not surprisingly, has already been verified and has even been given an official name. It is called livermorium after the Livermore facility in California where experiments to create it were conducted. Does any of this change the shape of the periodic table? Well not really because we already know in advance what the overall shape is and precisely where in the periodic table these new elements are expected to take their places.

Another point of interest and reason why these experiments are worth conducting is that heavy atoms do not always behave in the way that they are expected to according to the periodic table. But let me back-track a little. According to the periodic table all the elements that lie within a vertical column or group are supposed to share similar chemical and physical properties. And in most cases this is quite true. For example, the elements lithium, sodium and potassium in the first column on the left-side of the table are all soft white metals that are reactive and that can be cut with a knife.

But in the case of the new very heavy atoms everything is up for grabs. For example, the periodic table predicts that the element copernicium, which is number 112 in the table, should behave like cadmium and mercury since it lies in the same vertical column. However there is some evidence and some theoretical predictions that suggest that it may behave in an altogether different way and might be more like a highly unreactive noble gas. These are elements like helium, neon and argon that show no willingness to react with any other elements. So again by examining the behavior of very heavy atoms, scientists are able to test the limits of current knowledge and that will invariably trickle down to better science and better applications even if we cannot see precisely what that might be at the moment.

Is there a limit to how heavy atoms can get? The answer is still a matter of active research. According to some scientists the absolute limit lies at element 137. It can be shown from the current theory that if an element heavier than this were created its electrons would have to move at speeds higher than the speed of light and as everybody knows that's physically impossible. Therefore there is no such thing as an atom with more than 137 protons, at least according to this theory. We will have to wait and see. At the moment the heaviest atom that has been created is the as yet unnamed element 118 with its 118 protons all jammed together in a tiny central nucleus around which 118 negative electrons are circulating. In addition experiments are underway in several labs in order to try to create atoms of elements 119 and 120.

What will the newly verified element 115 be called? At this stage it's anybody's guess. Maybe it will be named after the lab where its properties were verified, which was Lund in Sweden? Or maybe it will follow another naming convention, which is to name elements after famous scientists such as the case of einsteinium or bohrium or rutherfordium. Again we will just have to wait and see but one thing is for sure. Any person wanting to recite the name of all the elements will need to expand their vocabulary and will need to pronounce some strange new names to add to recent examples like darmstadtium (element 110), roentgenium (element 111) and flevorium (element 114).