New Element 115 Takes a Seat at the Periodic Table

Scientists create a very heavy atom with a very short life span

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It isn’t carbon, it isn’t nickel, it sure as heck ain’t gold — it doesn’t even have a formal name. But never mind that. The newly created superheavy element, announced today in a paper published in the journal Physical Review Letters and known so far simply as element 115 — for the number of protons in its nucleus — is a very real thing. So real that it’s been officially welcomed into the periodic table of elements, the atom’s equivalent of winning a seat on the Supreme Court.

Element 115, officially labeled ununpentium as dictated by international chemistry naming rules, is neither a natural nor practical thing. Unlike the first 92 elements on the table, it was created artificially, just as all of the others from 93 to 118 were. Like those other made-to-order elements too, this one was created in a particle accelerator, and no sooner had it flashed into existence than it flashed out — in less than a second. But that was more than enough time for physicists at Lund University in Sweden to detect the scattering of smaller particles it left behind. Reverse engineering that debris, they could confirm that the new element had indeed been present. The same kind of atomic forensics is behind nearly all of the great findings made possible by particle accelerators — including last year’s confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson.

For this very tiny sample of the very heavy element, the Lund scientists fired atoms of calcium (with its proton count of 20) into atoms of americium (95 protons) and got element 115. Even particle physics is sometimes as simple as basic addition. The new element is a lot heavier than iron (77) or even lead (82). The heaviest, naturally occurring element, holding the No. 92 spot, is uranium.

Nobody pretends that the as-yet unnamed big boy will have much real-world use. As Dirk Rudolph, the physicist who led the work at Lund University, dryly told the Telegraph, “Given the production rate — let’s say, two atoms per day — practical implications are far-fetched.” But as with all pure physics, what’s practical to you and me is not necessarily what’s powerful and game changing to scientists, and in this case, element 115 can provide a lot of insight into how elements are created in nature and how the universe itself came into being. It may also help scientists creater even heavier — but far stabler — elements down the line, ones that really could have everyday applications.

And about that name? The Swedish research team was not the first to create element 115. As long ago as 2004, a team of American and Russian scientists led by S.N. Dmitriev at Russia’s Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions produced the same atom. New elements aren’t considered confirmed, however, until the work can be repeated, which is why it took the latest announcement to earn the new element its formal seat at the periodic table. But the original discoverer still reserves the right to pick the name.

For now, it’s stuck with its clunky ununpentium moniker, the two un’s coming from the Latin unum, for the number one, and the pent coming from the Greek word for five. That name had already been in pop-cultural use as a mysterious element in both the Tomb Raider and Call of Duty video games. But most folks are betting that Dmitriev — who, after all, hails from the land of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky — will come up with something a little more lyrical.

An earlier version of this story included a typographical error. In the first paragraph, periodic table appeared as period table. The term was typed correctly elsewhere in the story.

33 comments
MarkKaspersky
MarkKaspersky

Try coming up with something that might actually be useful and not waste so much time and money for a change. winmasters bonus

Petersimon
Petersimon

These elements are too unstable to last but a fraction of a second. It would seem to me that they should be created in a resonance field to prevent their decay. Course, I bet no one has thought of that.

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

Call me when you make ununennium.

I just wish positronium (element 0, consisting of a positron and an electron) was on the list.

skappa
skappa

"The new element is a lot heavier than iron (77)"

Iron has 26 protons. The element 77 is Iridium. The symbol of the element Iron is Fe, just like it is in latin : Ferrum.

CedricTouit
CedricTouit

@sam_et_max c'est pas un de ces éléments qui n'existe que pendant 23,4 nanoseconde ? auquel cas.. on s'en fou un peu non ? :D

amansopinion
amansopinion

@TIME It doesn't make sense to me to keep adding elements which are created by scientists. We should have stuck with the original 92.

wegoogin
wegoogin

@TIME it's funny to see the scientists describe their act with a verb "creation"...

gazdalynn
gazdalynn

@TIME Paragraph four...last sentence...creater should be create*

gary_vasquez
gary_vasquez

@TIME an element with a .000000000001 second half life gets a name? Alrighty then

souzou_no
souzou_no

@TIME am still holding out until adamantium gets on the periodic table! ;-)

einedame
einedame

@yours_heidi forget the "ium"s, I'll name it Iis, for 115... (AS IF MY OPINION MATTERS)

eagle11772
eagle11772

They should make a new rule that no new element gets a formal name unless it's half-life is at least 1 second long.

niikkko
niikkko

@itsmsjami galeng ng chemist! Anu ung formula ng new element mo? Haha jk!

kohler.sonny
kohler.sonny

Oh who cares.  If there is no use for it and it only exists for milliseconds, who cares.

Go to town eggheads.  Try coming up with something that might actually be useful and not waste so much time and money for a change.