Thursday, December 15, 2011

Two new elements look for seats at the Periodic Table


When I was a kid, we studied chemistry in middle school (we called it junior high school back then), and then again in high school.  It's no fault of my teachers, but if you asked me to tell you how many elements are in the Periodic Table I'd guess 130 or so.  And if I had to name the elements I know? Iron, gold, silver.  Um.  Helium for balloons at parties.  Oxygen. 

Hydrogen, who makes friends with about any element.  Plutonium and Uranium for atomic bombs.  Rhodium, the most expensive non-radioactive element on Earth--but I only know about that one because I used it in the plot of one of my novels. 

Fortunately, science didn't stop when I graduated high school.  Scientists did not hang up their lab coats and say, "Well, Mark graduated.  Our work here is done."  No, thankfully, science continues and amazing new discoveries are made all the time. 

In 1789 when Antoine Lavoisier published his list of elements, he had 33.  About 200 years later, my 1997 Webster's Dictionary has a table with 105 elements.  And the latest tables list 118.  Now scientists are preparing to add two new elements to the chart.

On 1 December, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (or IUPAC) put forth the proposed names of these elements:  flerovium (Fl) 114, and livermorium (Lv) 116 (first called ununhexium).  There is an approval process to go through, including a time for public commentary, but if the names pass, the elements should be added to the table this coming spring or summer.

There are two interesting things about these elements.  The first is how they came about.  Scientists from the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia collaborated with folks from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the United States.  For those of us old enough to remember the Cold War, the idea of chemists from the USA and the USSR working together would be unthinkable.  It's nice to see that old hatreds can eventually be set aside in favor of science.   

And the names are a nice split, too.  Flerovium is named for Georgi N. Flerov, who founded the Russian lab where flerovium was discovered.  And livermorium is a tribute to the city of Livermore, California, home of the famous Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

The second interesting thing is that these elements are combinations of other elements.  I thought that an element was something that can't be broken down further to anything else, but apparently my definition is wrong.  Flerovium is calcium and plutonium, while livermorium is calcium and curium.

These combo-elements are not stable, so it is difficult to experiment on them before they collapse into their parts.  Also, they are not found in nature and have to be made in a laboratory.  Scientists are working on other, similar combo-elements, but they have to be observed by IUPAC before they can enter the process for admittance to the periodic table.  Still, it may not be long before elements 113, 115, 117, and 118 find a seat at the table.

The really interesting part will be seeing what can scientists do with these new elements.

(Here is the original Mental Floss article.  And the press release from IUPAC.  And a helpful articles from the Christian Science Monitor and Wikipedia.  The picture is from: webelements.com.  And yes, it does look like Chinese Checkers.)

2 comments:

  1. That periodic table was a thing of beauty back when I could understand it. So much information could be yielded. One could figure out the number of molecules in a gram of any element or molecule. One could determine the electron structure and therefore figure out which elements naturally bond with others (remember the 1s, 2s, 2p stuff). Now, decades later, I giggle when I say 2p and if I take a paper sheet sized copy of the table and color in the appropriate squares I can make a smiley face.

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  2. The periodic table is a lot like a map--both are good examples of how a visual representation can cram a ton of information into a small space.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

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