Scientists Discover Isotopes Of Six Superheavy Elements

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Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have discovered six variations of extremely volatile superheavy elements, furthering scientists' ability to study these unstable elements.

The team that discovered the variations, headed by lab scientists Heino Nitsche, Ken Gregorich and Paul Ellison, a UC Berkeley graduate student in the College of Chemistry, detected the variations in the elements - which include copernicium, darmstadtium and rutherfordium - in a 23-day experiment involving yet-to-be-named element 114 that began in February. The results of the experiment were published Oct. 26 in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Using the lab's 88-inch cyclotron particle accelerator, scientists bombarded the element plutonium with accelerated calcium projectiles, generating element 114. By observing 114's decay, scientists discovered the six new isotopes, which are variations of an element that contain different numbers of neutrons.

Scientists used the especially neutron-rich calcium isotope calcium-48 for the experiment because the isotope was more stable, said Nitsche, leader of the project and UC Berkeley professor of chemistry. By using this stable isotope, researchers were able to generate less volatile superheavy elements.

"This is fundamental science and it's very important, as it builds the foundation for applied science," Nitsche said. "The measurements that we have done recently give us a better understanding of lighter elements 104, 106, 108, 110 and 112 - these isotopes have never been made before, and they provide data for theorists to improve existing models."

According to Nitsche, the discovery furthers the search for an "island of stability," a superheavy element with an ideal number of protons and neutrons that allows it to remain stable for a long period of time, permitting scientists to study it in depth. By studying these elements, scientists hope to learn more about the fundamental processes in nature, Nitsche said.

The experiment follows the lab's confirmation of element 114 in January 2009. A Russian team had discovered the element in 1999, but the element's existence was not confirmed until the lab independently created two atoms through the same calcium and plutonium process.

"We saw this experiment as an extension of the work we had already done, and we discovered lots of new and exciting things," said Ellison, who was lead author of the study.

Finding these isotopes gives scientists more information about the stability of intrinsically unstable superheavy elements and allows them to compare theoretical models of stability for other elements of this region of the periodic table, Ellison added.

"It's hard to do predictions for this region of the periodic table," he said. "This gives us six more plots to compare with theories."


Contact Kate Lyons at [email protected]

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