Remember the “Avatar” movie? Can you recall its grand scale, space operation involving military, scientific, and industrial teams and very pitiful result? As you remember, Earthlings were forced to withdraw after indigenous humanoid people called “Na’vi” defeated them with the support of Mother Nature (with some help from some Marines too!). What was this entire Pandora buzz about? The whole idea was to mine the precious metal called “unobtanium” with a price tag “20 million per kilo (2.2 lbs.)”. And there comes a million dollar question: is it possible to find an element like this here, on the Earth? After discovery of 115th element of periodic table, we probably are closer to saying “yes”.
In case somebody forgot 7th grade chemistry and all the elements we can offer the song of Tom Lehrer to refresh your memory.
You can hear it performed by Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) if you like it more this way.
OK, we can see that all the elements existing on our planet are placed on their rightful position in the table of elements. Probably you missed unobtanium in Lehrer’s song, but that is OK – this element does not exist yet, but discovery of the new 115th brings us closer to all new elements that will be found in future including something like unobtanium.
This is not a simple thing, of course, since there is one little problem which nuclear physicists don’t like to mention.
There are some elements in the table that are stable for a very long time, and therefore, can be used almost indefinitely. This list includes iron, copper, gold, silver, aluminum and many other elements that help to do our life easier or safer.
The problem starts when we reach elements around number 90. All elements with number 90 and higher are radioactive. It means they are not stable beginning to degrade from the moment of birth.
Some radioactive elements, however, are relatively stable which means their decay is relatively slow giving us some time to use them. For example, uranium or plutonium can be used to feed nuclear power plants to get electricity or to make nuclear bombs. Still you need to keep an eye on your radioactive element based devices to be sure they are still functional.
The situation is getting worse with the periodical numbers of elements increasing. Life time of these elements is very-very short. I would bet one million dollars against one dime that lifetime of the 115th is a tiny fraction of one second. Any volunteers?
So, should we simply ignore this new discovery of the 115th? Why do we need something which exists in time less than a blink of the eye? How can you use this stuff?
All these doubts are justified, but there is still hope. Let me offer you a simple math problem you can likely find in IQ tests.
Look at the line of numbers: 2, 10, 18, 36, 54, 86, … What number will come next? The problem is very simple, and the answer is 118.
The point is these numbers are not just numbers, but periodical numbers of chemical elements: 2 – helium, 10 – neon, 18 – argon, etc. Very useful elements by the way, especially if you know that all of them are extremely stable from all points of view.
You can open up your restaurant and place a neon advertisement light on top of it, which will serve you for a long time. If it stops working one day, check if you still have electricity in your area, or probably the glass on the lamp was broken. Nothing can disturb neon itself. So if all chemical and physical theories are true, we could expect that an element number 118 will be stable too, just as all his comrades in the same numeric line are. If it is so, it might open huge possibilities for us to use new elements that are to come later.
So, my advice to you, next time you hear something about discovery of the element number 116 – forget about it! Let nuclear physicists enjoy it for themselves. However, wait for the element number 118! It already has a preliminary name “Ununoctium”, and since we have 115 elements by now, it is not going to be very long time to wait. That will be a moment of truth!
If “Ununoctium” is stable as theory predicts, it would be very precious, just like “unobtanium”.
But if it is not? What if it also lives just a tiny fragment of a second as all previous elements?
Well, you probably know what to do. You should prepare yourself for an expedition to a Pandora like planet.
By Alsu Salakhutdinov