Science Just Got Heavier: Element 117 Confirmed

element 117

A new element is about to enter the periodic table after two teams of scientists confirmed it, and element 117 could push science beyond its limits, thanks to its super-heavy nature. Although this new element was first discovered in 2010 by a Russian-American team at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, scientists in Germany have recently confirmed its existence. According to researchers at the GSI Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research, experiments with such a heavy element could help them find the “Holy Grail,” namely the “island of stability.”

Scientists have been studying super-heavy elements for a long time, but one of the missing pieces of Russian chemist Dimitri Mendeleev’s periodic table was element 117. So far, elements beyond atomic number 104 have had short half-lives, but a new super-heavy element could revolutionize reseachers’ current findings. Christoph Düllmann, professor at the Institute for Nuclear Chemistry at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz stated that researchers have created heavier elements in hopes of detecting how large atoms can get. Düllman told Live Science that certain indicators show that long-lived super-heavy elements should exist. Although this information has not been confirmed, thanks to element 117 researchers can now explore the atomic nucleus’ limits and how many protons can be packed into it.

Usually an atom becomes more unstable if a large number of protons and neutrons are added in the atomic nucleus. As a result, most super-heavy elements do not last more than a few microseconds or nanoseconds before they decay. Scientists have already suspected that an “island of stability” is possible after the heavier elements regain their consistency, but the new element 117 could shed some light on how to prolong their life before decay. Horst Stöcker, scientific director at the GSI Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research, stated that the experiments made on it represent a step forward in producing and detecting the “elements situated on the ‘island of stability’ of super-heavy elements.” At the same time, Oak Ridge National Laboratory director Thom Mason acknowledged that the confirmation of element 117 is “a compelling example of international cooperation in science.”

The newly-confirmed element, also dubbed Unuseptium until it receives an official name, is an atom with 117 protons in its nucleus. Due to the increased number of protons it is highly unstable. Since element 117 is not found naturally on Earth scientists had to start with atoms of Berkelium and then bombard them with Calcium ions at high speeds. The Russian-American team that carried out the first experiment in 2010 concluded that the outcome is a fusion of calcium ions and Berklium that produces Unuseptium and then decays into elements 115 and 113. As part of the periodic table credited to Russian chemist Dimitri Mendeleev, element 117 would be part of Group VII, along with bromine, chlorine, and fluorine.

After scientists in Germany manage to create several atoms of this element and confirm its existence, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry will review the findings. The worldwide federation must also decide whether to formally acknowledge the super-heavy element 117 and determine which institution will name it.

By Gabriela Motroc

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