Ununoctium

The science world has been abuzz over the past few weeks with the news that four new elements have been added to the periodic table. The periodic table orders all elements into rows and columns based on their structure, which is important for ease of managing them. It is also important because the structure of elements is responsible for conferring chemical properties to elements.

Elements are numbered according to their atomic number, which is the number of protons found within an atom of the element. There are currently 118 elements on the table, with the most recent, 113, 115, 117 and 118 added on December 30th, filling the 7th row of the table. The table was first designed in 1869, which begs the question: why, if elements make up everything, have these four just now been discovered?

There are two reasons for that. The first is that these are synthetic elements. Thid means that no matter how closely you look, you will never find these in nature. They can only exist when created by scientists. The process for doing so sounds rather inelegant. In order to create these “superheavy” elements, smaller elements must be smashed into each other in the hope that they fuse into a larger element. This description does not do justice to the experiments. Certain elements are selected and must be collided in a supercollider at phenomenal speeds. Each time a collision takes place, there is a miniscule chance, roughly one in a billion, that the elements will collide just right and fuse together.

There is not a large window for seeing if the collision and fusion has worked, bringing us to the second reason: stability. As the elements get larger they become less stable. These new elements decay radioactively almost instantly into smaller elements. Luckily the decays can be easily detected, and often it is the unique decays, not the element itself, that serve as proof that the element was created.

This leads to an interesting scenario, in that we know barely anything about these elements’ properties. Normally we know the properties of an element from its group on the table, but these elements are so large that their huge number of protons can cause them to have unusual properties. We don’t even know what their names are. Those of you who have already heard of them might have seen the names ununtrium, ununpentium, ununseptium and ununoctium used. These are merely placeholders, while permanent names are devised. The names will come from the teams who discovered them, and there is a lot of historical pressure on their shoulders. With famous people and places immortalised on the table, there are a few rules in place to make sure nothing silly makes its way on.

The rules state that elements can only be named after places, scientists, mythical characters, minerals or properties of the element. This doesn’t leave much room, but element enthusiasts worldwide have been petitioning to immortalise people and places. One example urges the teams to name an element “octarine” in honour of recently deceased author Terry Pratchett. A separate campaign is in motion to name an element after the late Lemmy Kilmister of the heavy metal band Motorhead. It’s unknown whether or not anyone will take them up, as there has been no hints given by the teams. Some speculate that the Japanese team which discovered 113 will name it after the country; either Japanium or Nihonium, as it is the first to be discovered there.

So when will the periodic table be completely full up? Theoretically we could continue smashing heavier elements together forever until there is nothing left to name them for, but there is a goal in sight. It is theorised that there exists an “island of stability”; a part of the table where superheavy elements exist with the stability to last for days or weeks, or even longer. Such elements might have uses we can’t even imagine, and it is only by continuing to search that they can be found.

In the meantime, we have four new elements with places on the periodic table. There is still much to discover about their chemical properties, but first, they are in need of names.