The international race to push the periodic table to its limits is on – and a Russian superlab is leading it.Russian scientists have built a $60 million facility where they hope to create new elements way beyond those naturally occuring on Earth, using a particle accelerator the size of a two-storey house.
The new elements, if discovered, would extend the table to an eighth row, where some scientists believe things will start to go a bit crazy, with elements behaving in unexpected ways and the categorisation of the table breaking down.
Leading the work at the Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions in Dubna, around 60 miles north of Moscow, is Yuri Oganessian, the world’s leading expert on superheavy elements. Oganessian is 85, having worked at the lab since 1956, and has contributed so much to discoveries of new elements that element 118, oganesson, is named after him.
The lab has used particle accelerators to create nine new elements in the past 50 years, including the five heaviest, up to number 118.Now they hope that their Superheavy Element Factory, which fires off six trillion atoms per second at roughly one-tenth of the speed of light, will be able to produce element 119 or 120 – and that the Japanese scientists trying to do the same thing don’t beat them to it.
Why are these elements hard to create?
The heaviest element found in any significant amount on earth is uranium, atomic number 92 (the atomic number is the number of protons in an atom’s nucleus) – though there is evidence to suggest that elements with higher atomic numbers might be found elsewhere, for example in stars.
Elements with higher atomic numbers have, however, been created by scientists using particle accelerators, usually by smashing a beam of lighter atoms into a target of heavier atoms to make their nuclei collide and fuse. For example: neon (element 10) + uranium (92) = nobelium (102).
These are very difficult to create because the more protons atoms have in their nuclei, the harder it is to fuse them, as the positive charges repel each other so strongly. Japanese scientists took nine years to create element 113 three times (the number required before an element is officially accepted), and none of the atoms survived longer than five milliseconds before starting to decay radioactively.
So what, then?
Some scientists argue that finding new elements is not worth the huge amounts of money involved, especially when those atoms are inherently unstable and will start to decay radioactively in minutes – or sometimes fractions of a second.
But those involved argue that it is compelling – both the quest to find out how many elements can exist per se, and what happens to the periodic table as they are discovered. And there are important uses for some of these elements – americium, for example, is used in smoke detectors and spectrometers. You don’t have to be the next Dmitri Mendeleev – if your company is involved in scientific research, you could be eligible for government funding through the research and development tax credit scheme. At R&D Tax Solutions, we specialise in helping companies make successful claims. Have a look at our page on how to calculate r&d tax credits and our r and d tax credit calculator to see how much you could be eligible for.