The periodic table may soon see a new addition to its ranks. Swedish scientists recently announced they’d confirmed the existence of a new, superheavy element with the atomic number 115.
Elements are substances made of just one type of atom. Atoms are extremely small particles that can be thought of as nature’s building blocks—every substance on Earth is made of atoms. The periodic table lists all of Earth’s elements, and this discovery means one more may be added to the table.
Element 115 does not occur naturally. Scientists create it by slamming two smaller atoms together. The new element is very unstable. Once produced, it exists for only fractions of a second before decaying, or breaking down, into lighter-weight atoms.
The new element has been temporarily dubbed ununpentium—a name that means “one-one-five-ium,” after its atomic number (or the number of protons in the atom). Ununpentium was first created in 2003 by a team of U.S. and Russian scientists. But chemists don’t officially recognize new elements until they have been created by at least two teams working independently.
“These experiments are very difficult and take a very long time,” says Dawn Shaughnessy, a chemist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Shaughnessy was a member of the team that created ununpentium in 2003.
AN ATOMIC COMBINATION
Both the Russian-American and Swedish teams created element 115 by slamming calcium atoms into another, heavier atom called americium.
First, they sent calcium atoms zooming through a large circular tunnel called a particle accelerator. Inside the particle accelerator, the calcium atoms were concentrated into a very tight beam—like a laser made up of calcium atoms instead of light. Then the calcium beam was aimed at a cluster of americium atoms.
In 99.9999 percent of the particle collisions, the calcium atoms bounce off the atoms of americium and zip off into space. But every once in a while, a calcium atom strikes an americium atom at just the right angle and sticks, creating element 115.
After many billions of collisions, the U.S. and Russian team managed to create just four atoms of element 115. The Swedish team created 30 atoms.
A group called the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry will now review the data from the two teams. If the findings are approved, element 115 will be recognized as a new element. Then it can finally be given an official name and added to the periodic table.