The Birth of a New Element

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What makes oxygen oxygen and not, say, iron is not what these two elements are made of—both kinds of atoms have nuclei made of protons and neutrons, with a surrounding cloud of electrons. It's how many of these basic building blocks their nuclei contain. The fact that an oxygen atom has 8 protons, in particular, and iron 26 largely explains why you can breathe one and make a frying pan from the other.

But once you get to plutonium, with 94 protons, you've run out of naturally occurring elements. They may have once existed, but they're radioactive, and decay so quickly that there's none left on Earth, or, as far as we know, in space. Or there wasn't, rather, until physicists armed with cyclotrons began making them during World War II creating such exotic substances as Americium (94 protons), Curium (96), Berkelium (97). The more protons (and neutrons, which tend to add up even faster), the harder it is to make a new element—but that hasn't stopped scientists from trying.

So it was with great fanfare Monday that experts at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California, announced they, along with colleagues at Russia's Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, in Dubna, have produced an atom with 118 protons. Three atoms, actually. And all it took was smashing "bullets" of calcium at a target of Californium about 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 times.

It isn't the first time scientists have announced the manufacture of element 118; in 1999, physicists at the rival Lawrence Berkeley Lab said they'd done it. But that claim was retracted amid allegations of fraud by one of the scientists involved.

This time, the researchers were careful to double-check everything many times; the achievement still has to be duplicated at another lab to be considered rock-solid, but it appears to be a pretty good case.

Unfortunately, the atoms lived less than a millisecond before decaying, first into element 116, then 114, then 112 and finally fragmenting completely. It wasn't unexpected, but atomic physicists believe, for theoretical reasons, that atoms with 120 or 126 protons might be a lot more stable. Of course, they were saying that about element 114 a few years ago, and it didn't pan out. But if they get to a point where one of these super-heavy elements lasts for hours, not milliseconds (it will depend in part on getting the right number of neutrons as well), that would be enough time to do actual chemistry and understand their properties. It could happen, say the researchers, within 5 to 10 years, if a dedicated accelerator could ever get funded. That's the goal of all this work — there's pretty much no conceivable practical application for any of this stuff.

Until it's confirmed, element 118 remains nameless, although if you Latinize the numerals, it sounds sort of like a name. So for the foreseeable future, it will be known as "Ununoctium," at least to its friends.