In The Search For New Elements, Look No Further Than Earth

Illustration of element 117. Animation by Kwei-Yu Chu/LLNL
Illustration of new element 117, soon to be named tennessine. The element has 117 protons but only survives a fraction of a second before breaking into lighter elements. Credit: Kwei-Yu Chu/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Elements are well, elementary. Each is a substance composed of the same kind of atoms and no others. Copper is made only of copper atoms, all of which have 29 protons — no more or less — in their nuclei. If an atom has 30 protons, it’s not copper but zinc. And if it has 28, it’s nickel.

This model shows a carbon atom with 6 protons and 6 neutrons (neutral particles) in its nucleus surrounding by 6 electrons. Credit: NASA
This model shows a carbon atom with 6 protons and 6 neutrons (neutral particles) in its nucleus surrounded by 6 electrons. Credit: NASA

Hydrogen has only one proton and carbon six. The fewer the protons in an atom’s nucleus, the lighter the element. That’s why helium balloons (helium has but two protons) are so eager to float away if you accidentally let one go, while lead (82 protons) feels so heavy in the hand. Each element also carries a one or two-letter symbol or abbreviation: Li for lithium, “O” for oxygen, Pu for plutonium and so on. Sometimes people ask if we’ve ever detected any elements in the universe not found on Earth. Funny, but just the opposite is true. There are more elements on Earth than anywhere else in the cosmos.

94 of the 118 known elements occur naturally and are found on Earth and in the universe at large; the remaining 24 were created artificially in the “lab” and so far as we know don’t exist in nature. All of the manmade elements are made by smashing together lighter elements. The resulting new substances are unstable and break down in a fraction of a second into smaller, lighter elements.

image showing the individual atoms making up this gold (100) surface. The surface atoms deviate from the bulk crystal structure and arrange in columns several atoms wide with pits between them. Credit: Wikipedia
A powerful microscope made this image showing individual gold atoms making up a gold surface. The atoms are arrange in columns several atoms wide with pits between them. Credit: Wikipedia

Just this past week, chemistry’s governing body, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) proposed names for four of the newest manmade elements created in the past few years. Element 113 will soon go by nihonium (Nh); element 115, moscovium (Mc); element 117, tennessine (Ts); and element 118, oganesson (Og). Scientists smashed calcium nuclei (20 protons) into a target of berkelium (97 protons) to create tennisine.The names may sound curious to our ears because we’re more familiar with elements that have been known for a long time like sodium, sulfur and aluminum.

There are rules for naming elements just as there are for stars, asteroids and so many things we encounter in nature. Scientific committees come up with naming schemes to make sense of nature’s diversity and to keep us all on the same page so we know what we’re talking about.

Elements can be named after one of their chemical or physical properties, a mythological concept or character (including an astronomical object!), a mineral, a place or country, or a scientist. Nihonium (Nh) is named for Nihon, a word for Japan in Japanese and literally means ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. It was confirmed at the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-based Science in 2012 and the first element ever to be named for an Asian country.

Learn how element 117 tennessine was created

Elements 115 moscovium and 117 tennisine were synthesized in a joint collaboration between Russia and the United States. Moscovium recognizes the Moscow region, home to Russia’s Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, while tennessine acknowledges the contribution of the Tennessee region, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, to superheavy element research. Particle accelerators were used to create these and other heavy, short-lived elements. For example, to synthesize tennessine, scientists smashed calcium nuclei (20 protons) into a target of berkelium (97 protons).

The final newly named element, 118 oganesson, honors the Russian nuclear physicist Yuri Oganessian for his work and research on superheavy elements. All four were made by All 118 elements are ordered by their proton number and other qualities into one grand scheme called the periodic table. I remember when the table finally  during high school chemistry and seeing how beautifully all the elements fit together in one interlocking puzzle. The insight made me almost giddy.

a table of the chemical elements arranged in order of atomic number, usually in rows, so that elements with similar atomic structure (and hence similar chemical properties) appear in vertical columns.
Chemical elements are arranged in order of atomic number (how many protons in their atoms) in rows so that elements with similar atomic structure and chemical properties appear in vertical columns. Click for a large version. More versions of the table can be found here.

So the periodic table is about to grow by four slots. You might be wondering about now why chemists expend so much energy smashing things together for several months at a time in hopes of creating something that falls apart milliseconds later. Good question. First, they’re seeking a deeper understanding of matter and in particular how the nucleus of the atom behaves, but they also hope to smash their way to the fabled “island of stability”. It’s theorized that much further up the periodic table, perhaps as high as element 300, the trend of heavy elements falling apart would reverse and new superheavy elements would be stable enough to stick around for possibly millions of years. If true, their chemistry could be studied and uses for them found.

In the sun's hot core, hydrogen is fused to create helium. As the sun ages, its helium will fuse to form carbon and oxygen. Larger stars and supernovae explosions create even heavier elements. Credit: NASA
In the sun’s hot core, hydrogen fuses to create helium. As the sun ages, its helium will fuse to form carbon and oxygen. Larger stars and supernovae explosions create even heavier elements. Credit: NASA

Hydrogen and helium are the most common elements in the universe and formed shortly after the Big Bang, when our universe had cooled down enough from its initial fiercely-hot state for the first atoms to form. But when it comes to Earth, the mix is a little different. Oxygen is the most common element, making up about 47% of the earth’s mass. Silicon is second at 28%, followed by aluminum (8%), iron (5%), calcium (4%), sodium (3%), potassium (3%) and magnesium (2%). All of the remaining elements together make up less than 1% of the earth’s mass. The sun in contrast contains 71% hydrogen and 27% helium by mass. While those two elements are the lightest, the sun has so much of them, it’s still 333,000 times more massive than the Earth.

Many of the more complex (heavier) elements were forced in the hearts of stars under tremendous heat and pressure, later to be released into space through supernova explosions and by aging stars. When the material regathered under the force of gravity to form the next generation of stars, leftover materials went to build the planets … and ultimately us.

4 Responses

  1. Bob Nudell

    Very nice article Bob – super informative and succinct without dumbing it down. Did not know about the search for the stable super heavy elements – very cool. You should write a book – you remind me a lot of Bill Bryson

    1. astrobob

      Well that’s kind of you to say, Bob. Thank you. Funny you should mention Bill’s (an excellent and witty writer). I’ve read a couple of his books, most recently “The Road to Little Dribbling”, which had me laughing to the end. Have you read that one?

  2. Taylor

    What will the new ones be used for in every day life? Thank you
    ((From a eager to learn 10 year old.))

    1. astrobob

      So far, the new ones don’t last long enough to use. The hope is that we’ll find ones farther down the line that will be stable and stick around for more than a few minutes or seconds. Then maybe we can find a use for them!

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