A New Element on the Table

Its name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue: ununseptium (oon-oon-SEP-tee-um). But like many things in science, what it loses in pizzazz it gains in accuracy. In Latin, ununseptium means "117," and it refers in this case to a new element scientists have just added to the Periodic Table.

ate-bio-02.jpgI was in touch yesterday with Ken Moody, one of the scientists involved in the find. Ken is a research chemist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; his collaborators on this project come from two U.S. universities, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia. Altogether Ken has helped uncover six new chemical elements, numbers 113 through 118.

I asked Ken, whose group's discovery of element 114 (ununquadium) we chronicled in a 2006 NOVA scienceNOW video segment, what it felt like when he and his team "saw" that first atom of 117. He said they weren't sure at first and so remained cautious.

"Sorry, no shouts of 'Eureka!', no joyous dancing in the halls, and no victorious toasting," Ken told me in an email. But a few weeks later the team detected a second tell-tale occurrence. "It was consistent with the previous event in most particulars," Ken wrote, "and while random events can always bite you when you have only one of something, if you have two and they look alike, the assignment is pretty definite." In the end, the team detected six atoms of the stuff, enough to secure ununseptium a place on the Periodic Table.

And to further the search for the fabled "island of stability." Superheavy elements--those above 92 (uranium) on the table--do not exist in nature and typically decay in the blink of an eye. But theorists have long believed that some very heavy elements might be more stable, lasting long enough to actually be studied and perhaps even made use of in some way. The two isotopes of 117 that Ken's team produced had half-lives of only 14 and 78 milliseconds, respectively, but those are apparently respectable chunks of time for superheavy elements. And so the discovery brings Ken and his collaborators one step closer to that Holy Grail-like "island of stability."

In fact, they may reach the island before ununseptium--or, for that matter, ununtrium, ununquadium, ununpentium, ununhexium, or ununoctium--gets officially named. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, which handles this, just got around in February to naming element 112, copernicum, which was discovered in 1996.

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