National Geographic Daily News
Periodic Table of Elements

Periodic Table of Elements

Peridoic Table Courtesy of Tomacco/Getty Images

Melody Kramer

for National Geographic

Published August 28, 2013

If you've learned all the elements from actinium to zirconium, it's time to head back to the periodic table, where there's a new, extremely heavy element in town.

The new element doesn't have an official name yet, so scientists are calling it ununpentium, based on the Latin and Greek words for its atomic number, 115.  (Related: Read a feature on element hunters in National Geographic magazine.)

In case you forgot your high school chemistry, here's a quick refresher: An element's atomic number is the number of protons it contains in its nucleus.

The heaviest element in nature is uranium, which has 92 protons. But heavier elements-which have more protons in their nucleus-can be created through nuclear fusion. (Related: Learn how to make an element.)

The man-made 115 was first created by Russian scientists in Dubna about ten years ago. This week, chemists at Lund University in Sweden announced that they had replicated the Russian study at the GSI Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research in Germany.

(See pictures of the labs where new elements are created.)

Element 115 will join its neighbors 114 and 116-flerovium and livermorium, respectively-on the periodic table just as soon as a committee from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) decides on an official name for 115.

We asked Paul Hooker, a chemistry professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, for his take on the latest addition to the periodic table.

So it sounds like 115 was actually created ten years ago, by a lab in Russia. Why are we just learning about its discovery?

When you find a new element, it has to be confirmed. You need two different labs to confirm it before [IUPAC] considers adding it to the periodic table.

This is the second lab coming in and repeating the same experiment, so now it's considered to be an official new element.

So what did the Russian and Swedish chemists actually do?

The way that you make new elements now is by shooting a beam of an element at another element and then seeing what happens when they collide.

In this case, the researchers used americium, which is kind of interesting because it's an unstable, radioactive element. They fired calcium atoms-which are much lighter than americium atoms-at the americium for weeks or even months. Most of the calcium atoms bounced off, but every now and then the atoms collided and instead of the calcium element bouncing off, it actually stuck to the americium element. When that happens, you get a short-lived atom with more protons in its nucleus, which is the center of the new element 115.

How did they know they created a new element if it happened so quickly? I think I read that it existed for less than a second before it decayed.

They look for the decay products. They look for telltale signs for when 115 disintegrates, by what's called alpha particle emission. When they see enough of those signals, they can say they probably formed a new element.

How do they know if a new element will be unstable or not?

There was an element 118 that was predicted to be much more stable; 115 wasn't predicted to be especially stable. We know what is stable. Certain ratios of protons to neutrons are stable. As the nucleus gets bigger and bigger, it's not stable-and then it can radioactively decay and spit out smaller particles-that means it's really not very stable.

Can anyone try to create a new element?

No. You need a large vacuum chamber because you can't fire calcium atoms through the air. You need a lot of specialized equipment. There aren't many labs that can do this type of thing. The only people interested in doing this are trying to answer some of the bigger questions, like "How is all matter held together?"

Where are most new elements created?

Most of these new elements have been formed in Russia and the States for the past 30 to 40 years. It's become a race for who can get the next new element, to try to make the biggest one you actually can. But of course, because they're so big, they're very unstable and fall apart extremely quickly.

If they fall apart extremely quickly-and clearly don't exist in nature-then what's the point?

I talk about this a lot with my students. I basically tell them, "Because it's there." There's no way that a new, unstable element is going to have any uses because it deteriorates so quickly. But it gives insight about the forces that hold atoms together so we can learn more about how the universe is held together.

Why are people really doing this? Why do we send particles through huge colliders? Why are we smashing things into each other at higher and higher velocities? I think it fulfills the human race's natural curiosity. We want to know where we come from. And every time we answer something, we come up with ten more questions to answer.

This was a man-made element. How do we know we've found all of the naturally occurring elements?

The good thing with elements is that they're defined by atomic numbers, meaning they're defined by the number of protons in the nucleus. This number is never a fraction, so you can't have, say, 3.2 protons in a nucleus. So we know we have them all because we know of an element with one proton and an element with two protons and so on.

Is there a limit to how many elements we can create?

Well, we're hitting a limit with stability when there are over 90 protons in a nucleus, so while we may find more, we're certainly not getting up to 1,000 protons. It would be too unstable.

One last question: I actually have a periodic table shower curtain. Do you recommend getting an updated one?

I recommend updating your shower curtain when 115 is confirmed. When the committee gets together and names it. And that's an entirely different question.

So I guess I should ask: Why does a committee do it?

Because these things get quite political. Back in the day, the Americans would say: We discovered it and named it something. The Russians would say: We did, and named it something else. So a committee has to get together and negotiate. They try to keep it apolitical-maybe they'll name it after someone from Italy or Lithuania or something.

24 comments
Richard Martinez
Richard Martinez

Sorry to be ridiculous, but I believe that the radiation of Extra Terrestrial life begins here on Earth. Our species will be long gone when other, more successful ones evolve; the ones that bridge the technology gap with a profound, inborn understanding of the elemental forces of the natural universe. These will solve the riddle of the time space continuum: hence travel and colonization of far flung, unimaginable reaches of the universe. Give it about another hundred million years or so. In the meantime, let us raise a glass to Ununpentium, and the unquenchable drive of the Human species to push a little further the the boundaries of knowledge! 

Charles Ruffing
Charles Ruffing

PFFFT! This Element 115 was confirmed by scientist BOB LAZAR back in ther 80's.. The non media machine is just now catching up...

Th Ha
Th Ha

I enjoyed the article and scrolled to read the comments, thinking, "This is a nat geo article about chemistry, should be safe to see what others think without having to worry about the usual internet jerks". Nope, of course people are bashing each other :(

Justin Citizen
Justin Citizen

Bob Lazar mentioned the US military was using this element in some gravity repelling technology in area 51 back in 1989 & as of today Mr. Lazar has his own company "United Nuclear" & has government contracts with Raytheon (a MAJOR US military weapons/laser & Ebomb developer)  Seems if Lazar was lying despite how the government basically erased his credentials & school records they would hire him, but they did..  what does that tell you?.. 

Will Avery
Will Avery

I am eagerly awaiting the new name so I can update a song about the periodic elements that I wrote. :-) 

Amy Taylor
Amy Taylor

Not only is Lithium (Li) wrong in the accompanying graphic, as Merle pointed out; but so is Protactinium (Pa) which has an atomic number of 91, Lawrencium (at least they have Lr and not Lw) with an atomic number 103.

Darryl Biatcho
Darryl Biatcho

115? Obviously it should be called Elerium... Points to those who get the reference :]

ZEINEB MESSAOUDI
ZEINEB MESSAOUDI

Donc ce sont juste de "nouveaux éléments" pour la gloire des scientifiques : genre; ils ont crée un nouvel élément. mais  un élément  qui apparait une fraction de seconde et qui ne sert à rien, sauf quand on accrochera son nom au  tableau périodique! 

Anand Pareek
Anand Pareek

Very useful & knowledge enhancing information.

The Q & A style of the article is great.

Greetings to Author Ms Kramer

Merle M.
Merle M.

I believe that Periodic Table image has an error. The atomic number for Lithium is 3, not 2.

Dean Hester
Dean Hester

It's amazing how elegant a scientific discovery can be turned into political drivel by an uninformed fool.

Ben Mullen
Ben Mullen

I just hope this Swedish/ Russian discovery can somehow turn into a shouting match about American politics ;)

Max Day
Max Day

Maybe we should call it lunacycium, because of all of the lunacy coming out of the Socialist Democrat party, institutionalizing things that even their old-time heros of 40 years ago would have denounced as lunacy. HHH would not be welcome at any democrat meeting today.

Doug L
Doug L

since it is extremely unstable I suggest that it be named Teapublicanium 

Neoracer Xox
Neoracer Xox

@Charles Ruffing They (the scientific community) are also ripping him off for his gravity distortion/warping theory too its ridiculous.

Shawn St.Amand
Shawn St.Amand

@Beck Burgelin YES! After the COD zombies back story for element 115, my thoughts exactly. Symbol is Dv in the game tho hehe

Robert Hawk
Robert Hawk

@Doug L Once it appears, decay immediately begins.  I suggest Democratium.  Or since we didn't know what it would do until we created it, how about Obamacarium.

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