There’s hydrogen and helium… and ununtrium, ununpentium, ununseptium, and ununoctium?
4 elements are finally getting “real” names and symbols on the periodic table. “Why now?” you might ask? Well, that’s elementary dear Sherlock.
This video from DNews explains the discovery of the new elements.
The four elements, currently using placeholder names and symbols, had not been “officially discovered” until the December 30th, 2015, when the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) verified them. Of course, this isn’t the first time these elements have been synthetically produced, however the researchers needed to gather a significant amount of evidence to prove their existence. Ununtrium, ununpentium, ununseptium and ununoctium (113, 115, 117 and 118 respectively) are highly unstable superheavy metals, that when synthetically produced, last only a fraction of a second.
IUPAC has credited the discovery of ununtrium (113) to the RIKEN Institute in Japan. This team of dedicated scientists have been searching for the element since 2003. According to their website they “began bombarding a thin layer of bismuth with zinc ions travelling at about 10% the speed of light [in theory] they would occasionally fuse, forming an atom of element 113.” Their theory was indeed correct, in 2004, a year into the experiment, they successfully synthesized the element. Since then, they have been able to produce it three times.
Now that the element has been verified by the IUPAC, the Japanese scientists are allowed to choose a name for the element to replace its placeholder name. While no official statements have been released about what the element will be named, it is rumoured that Japanium might replace the placeholder name of ununtrium.
The discovery of elements 115 and 117 have been credited to a collaboration between labs in California (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) and Russia (Joint Institute for Nuclear Research). For the discovery of the element 118, there was a collaboration between these two labs, as well as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
The scientists responsible for the discovery of these elements can’t just choose any names and symbols they want. First and foremost, the names and symbols have to be unique, for fairly self-explanatory reasons. If there were five elements called “Hydrogen” there would be an awful lot of confusion as to which one you were talking about. Secondly IUPAC recommends that the element be named after a mythological creature, a property, a place, or a scientist. Once a name has been chosen by the scientists, it has to be approved by IUPAC and submitted for public review. As well, the scientists better not get cold feet about the name, because once the name is chosen, it can never be changed.
In all, the process of accepting a name can take between 4 to 6 months.
Finding new elements isn’t cheap, to discover ununtrium, the RIKEN Institute spent over 2.8 million dollars just for the electricity needed to run the experiment. The search for new elements is far from over though. In an interview with The Guardian Kosuke Morita, the lead of the research at the RIKEN institute said that their team was going to “look to the unchartered territory of element 119 and beyond.”