In a huge international collaboration, a team of scientists have made a few atoms of element number 117, confirming work done by a Russia-USA collaboration in 2010 and securing the new element a place on the periodic table.
The results, published in Physical Review Letters this week, describe how the team of 72 scientists from 17 different labs across 11 countries made and detected the new element, and also found new forms of dubnium (element 105) and lawrencium (element 103) in the process.
Element 117 does not exist naturally on earth.
To make it, the researchers first needed another element that does not occur naturally on earth, berkelium (element number 97). The berkelium was combined with oxygen to make berkelium oxide, which was coated onto a titanium plate. Atoms of special heavy calcium (element number 20) were then shot at the berkelium coating at nearly 10% of the speed of light.
Some of the calcium atoms hit the berkelium atoms so hard that they stuck together to make atoms of element 117.
These newly made atoms of element 117 were not very stable, however, and after less than a tenth of a second, they started to fall apart.
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Elements get their number according to their makeup. Atoms are made of tightly-packed lumps of protons and neutrons. The number of protons an atom has affects its chemical behaviour, and determines what element it is. The element’s number is the same as the number of protons its atoms contain.
Elements with numbers higher than 100 are called the superheavy elements. These elements are not found naturally on earth, but can be made in a lab. 15 superheavy elements have been made and confirmed so far, with element 117 set to be the 16th.
All superheavy elements so far are unstable, falling apart within seconds or less of being created.
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At present, the main usefulness of making and studying superheavy elements is in making more superheavy elements. The instability of the superheavy elements found so far has meant they haven’t found many other applications yet.
It is predicted, though, that there should be a group of much more stable superheavy elements around element numbers 120 and 126. How these elements would behave and what they might be useful for can only be guessed at. Perhaps one of them will be the key discovery that leads to undreamed-of new technologies.