Four New Chemical Elements: Not Just another Period Drama

Image Source: sciencenotes.org

Four New Chemical Elements: Not Just another Period Drama

Just when you thought that your high school chemistry lessons had taught you (or attempted to) all there was to know about chemistry, they go and discover a whole raft of new elements! Four new elements were officially verified at the end of last year, and welcomed onto the periodic table – instantly rendering every poster and textbook out of date. So does this mean for the world of science, and for laypersons? What makes an element an element, how are new ones discovered and added to the periodic table? We will explore all of these, plus tell the history of the periodic table – the bane of students up and down the land – and show how ahead of its time it was in terms of displaying complex data.

The Making of a Legend

But before we look at the actual discovery of these four new elements, an explanation of the history and function of the periodic table is necessary. The periodic table has become one of the most iconic images not just of school science labs, but of pretty much everyone. It is such a familiar depiction, that it is easy to overlook what an incredibly clever and simple representation it is of such a complex subject. The story of the periodic table began in the 1700s with Antoine Lavoisier. The celebrated French chemist classified the 33 then-known elements into gases, non-metals, metals and earths. More than half a century later, in 1858, Italian chemist Stanislao Cannizzaro was the first to arrange the elements in order from the lightest (oxygen) to the heaviest. After a couple of false starts from scientists in France and England, it fell to Russian chemist Dimitri Mendeleev in 1869 to produce the first periodic table, giving it the form that we still recognize today.


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Basing his list on the atomic weight and chemical formula of the highest oxide of the element, Mendeleev put each element on a separate card. He then arranged them very much like a game of solitaire, putting those with similar oxides together in order of their atomic weight. The table worked so well and Mendeleyev had such confidence in it that by looking where the gaps were, he was able to predict not only the number of elements that hadn’t been discovered, but their atomic weights, densities and oxides as well. Subsequent discoveries proved the accuracy of this new table of elements and its future was sealed.

The final piece of the jigsaw came in 1894 when English scientists Lord Rayleigh and William Ramsay discovered the final group of elements – noble gases – when they extracted argon from air. Helium, neon, krypton and xenon soon followed suit, with radon, the final of the noble gases being discovered by Freidrich Dorn in 1900.

The periodic table now had the structure that adorns every school science lab.

 

Spin-Offs

Though he didn’t realize it at the time, Dimitri Mendeleev created one of the first infographics. The periodic table has spawned literally hundreds of spin-offs, as people realize it is a recognizable, easy and fun way to represent a massive amount of data in a way that doesn’t instantly turn off the reader. All over the internet, there are periodic tables for pretty much everything you can imagine. One of them is, fittingly, the periodic table of AMC’s hit series Breaking Bad. Quite a useful one, especially for poker playing newbies, is this periodic table of poker created by Poker Stars to help people navigate their way through the myriad of terms associated with one of the world’s favorite card games. Other examples range from such diverse subjects as Disney films, to cocktails, from Harry Potter characters to profanity.

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It’s Elementary

An element is defined as a substance consisting of atoms that all have the same atomic number, that is the same number of protons. Chemically, elements are the simplest structures possible, and cannot be broken down by chemical means – it can only be done using nuclear methods.

This past January, four new additions made their way into the periodic table, after they got officially verified by IUPAC – the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. Elements 113, 115, 117 and 118 are the first to be discovered since 2011. This development means that the 7th row of the periodic table is now complete. All four elements were found using particle accelerators and stem from research that started as far back as 2002. Several teams of scientists from countries including Japan, USA and Russia used the accelerators to fire beams of lighter nuclei at those of heavy elements in the hope that they would fuse. Although these new elements only exist for a few microseconds before decaying into other elements, this research has suggested that the creation of even heavier elements could be possible, ones that will be far more stable and hence able to survive for longer.

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It is down to IUPAC to officially credit the discovery of new elements, and to decide who the credit should go to. This isn’t always a straightforward process. Competing claims for discoveries are common, and in 1999 the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory claimed to have discovered elements 116 and 118 before it was found that one of their scientists (who was subsequently dismissed) had actually fabricated the results.

The discovery of elements 115, 117 and 118 has been credited to two teams: Russian and U.S scientists at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna and at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The discovery of element 113, though also claimed by the U.S. and Russian team, was attributed to a Japanese research team at Japan’s RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science in Wako, making it the first element that will be named in Asia.

 

What’s in a Name?

Currently, the new elements are going under the less than inspiring names of ununtrium – Uut 113; ununpentium – Uup 115; ununseptium – Uus 117 and ununoctium – Uuo 118. These odd names are actually just the elements’ numbers in Latin. The task of naming the elements – often as painstaking and drawn out as that of actually finding them in the first place – is down to the team who discovered them. There are guidelines to what an element can and cannot be named after. It is acceptable to name them after scientists, mythological concepts, minerals, or a place, property or country. This hasn’t deterred thousands of fans of Motorhead, who have signed an online petition to try and get one of the heavy metal elements named after Lemmy, the band’s legendary front man who passed away in December.

It is not known what the Russian chemist would have thought about his hundreds of hours of painstaking work helping college students up and down the land to not only learn their chemical elements but also to create multiple spin-offs and daydream of becoming the one who will identify the next element on the table. Around the world there are teams of scientists this very minute trying to discover elements 119, 120 and so on, so don’t think this story is finished for a second.