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Element 117: Scientists discover new super-heavy element - What you should know

2 May 2014, 11:40 pm EDT By James Maynard Tech Times
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Ununseptium, an element with 117 protons in its nucleus, has been created by an international team of physicists. This newly-created atom is the heaviest element ever developed, 40 percent more massive than lead. 

Researchers from the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Germany created the atom, confirming research first conducted in 2010. This earlier experiment confirmed the existence, as well as the relatively long lifetime, of the theoretical material. This newest development re-created the super-heavy atoms, and could place ununseptium on the periodic table, as element 117. 

The temporary name, Ununseptium, refers to the number of protons at the center of the atom. This number also gives elements their place on the periodic table. For instance, the lightest element, hydrogen, has one proton and is element number one. Of the 116 elements on the periodic table, 92 are found in nature, while the rest are products of nuclear reactions and particle accelerators. 

"Although superheavy elements have not been found in nature, they can be produced by accelerating beams of nuclei and shooting them at the heaviest possible target nuclei. Fusion of two nuclei - a very rare event - occasionally produces a superheavy element," researchers wrote in a press release announcing the study.

Researchers from the Australian National University also took part in the creation of the new super-heavy element. 

The atoms were crafted from Berkelium, one of the man-made materials, possessing 97 protons within its nucleus. This raw material took 18 months to produce at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), before being shipped to GSI. There, physicists bombarded the material, along with calcium ions, in order to create the new element. 

The heaviest elements have half-lives measured in billionths of a second. Around element 117, researchers expected to find an "island of stability," where atoms would last for a longer period of time before decaying. 

Super-heavy elements within the island of stability are predicted to have unique properties, unlike anything ever seen before on Earth. It is far too early to tell what futuristic technologies might be developed from the new material, if it is ever produced in quantity. 

As ununseptium breaks down, it first decays into unnpentium (element 115), then ununtrium, element 113, becomes the next decay product. Both of these types of atoms are highly unstable. 

Although first seen in a joint project between the United States and Russia four years ago, this creation was confirmed by a larger group of international physicists. The International Unions of Pure and Applied Physics and Chemistry (IUPAPC) still needs to review the discovery before ununseptium gets added to the periodic table.

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