Racing befirst createworld’s heaviest element

Racing to be the first to create the world’s heaviest element

1:31 AM, 18th November 2011
Racing to be the first to create the world’s heaviest element
Jon Petter Omtvedt, Professor of Nuclear Chemistry, University of Oslo, is member of one of the teams competing to create elements 119 and 120.

 

All heavy elements are created in gigantic supernova explosions. Now scientists are competing to create the world’s heaviest element in a laboratory. Production time: less than one atom per month. Lifetime: a few modest microseconds.

OSLO, NORWAY: All elements heavier than iron are formed in supernovas. By comparison, the energy of the sun is so low that it can only form the light elements. This autumn, two international teams of scientists are competing to see who can create the heaviest element in the universe in a laboratory.

Super-heavy elements are those with an atomic number above 104. Several years ago, scientists managed to create element 118. Now it is time to try elements 119 and 120.

Jon Petter Omtvedt, Professor of Nuclear Chemistry, University of Oslo, is member of one of the teams. The experiment is being conducted at the German GSI Helmholtzzentrum fur Schwerionenforschung. The competitors, a team of Russian and American scientists working at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia are just as eager to win the competition. The competition is difficult as super-heavy elements are highly unstable and difficult to create. The scientists are already busy trying to create the first atom of element 120. The production time for super-heavy elements gets longer the heavier they are. When scientists discovered element 106, they managed to create one atom per hour. The half-life ie, the approximate lifetime of an atom was twenty seconds. That means that half of the substance decayed into other, lighter elements in 20 seconds time.

The race to create element 119 started when Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the USA produced 20 mg of radioactive substance, Berkelium. Created artificially in special nuclear reactors, Berkelium is heavier than Uranium and difficult to produce in pure concentrations. In order to create element 119, they will bombard a metal plate laced with Berkelium (97-atomic no) atoms with a beam of Titanium (22-atomic no) atoms. Berkelium is perishable and has a half-life of 320 days. “It is extremely difficult to create intense Titanium beams. It will be like bombarding the plate with billiard balls, but the probability of a direct hit is extremely low.”

The only way to get the element is to measure the radioactive radiation at the moment when atom decays. “This means that we cannot detect the atom by measurement until it is gone. Not before that!” The decaying of atoms will be a chain of fissions progressing in five to eight steps. The scientists can only be certain that they have found the new element when the chain of reactions occurs in a particular way. The scientists also want to know how an element is composed and why some elements are unstable.

An atomic nucleus consists of protons and neutrons. The larger the atomic nucleus becomes, the more difficult it is for their forces to hold the nucleus together. “One of the biggest and most exciting questions is to find out how heavy an element we are capable of creating. Even though it is extremely difficult to create elements 119 and 120, we do not believe that these elements will be the end of the periodic table,” said Omtvedt.

(C) University of Oslo News

 

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