A new super-heavy element, temporarily called 117, may soon be making its way into the periodic table after being successfully created in a laboratory setting. Made up of 117 protons, the element matches some of the heaviest atoms ever observed and is around 40 percent heavier than a single atom of lead.
Scientists have been aware of the existence of element 117 for some time, since its discovery by a group of Russian researchers in 2010. However it wasn't officially recognized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), an organization responsible for defining the periodic table, as they require the creation of a new element to be independently verified.
A multinational group of researchers led by scientists at Germany's GSI lab have now managed to create four atoms of 117 and independently confirm its existence, before it disappeared in a tenth of a second.
"Making element 117 is at the absolute boundary of what is possible right now," says Professor David Hinde, Director of the Heavy Ion Accelerator Facility, ANU Nuclear Physics Department, Australia, who collaborated on the research. "That’s why it’s a triumph to create and identify even a few of these atoms."
Super-heavy elements like 117 don't occur naturally. The chances of successfully creating even a single atom of it are quite low, since the nuclei of smaller atoms have to combine in a specific way to get the right number of protons within the nucleus.
To create atoms of 117 that they could observe, scientists at the GSI lab fired over 10^19 (ten billion billion) rare calcium-48 nuclei at an even rarer isotope called berkelium-249. They're hopeful that the four atoms they were able to create and corroborate, will be enough to guarantee the element's inclusion in the periodic table.
Element 117 has yet to be properly named, but the team is already looking ahead.
“The big question is, how can we create elements 119 and 120?" asks Hinde.