Why we don’t make new el­e­ments now

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - Sunday Special -

The pe­ri­odic ta­ble is 150 years old, and there are 118 el­e­ments in it, but it’s been a while since the last new el­e­ment was added. Will we ever have El­e­ment 119?

To re­fresh your school physics, th­ese new el­e­ments do not oc­cur in na­ture. Sci­en­tists cre­ate them in labs us­ing power-hun­gry ma­chines called par­ti­cle ac­cel­er­a­tors. To make a heavy ar­ti­fi­cial el­e­ment like seaborgium (106 pro­tons), they could smash atoms of chromium (24 pro­tons) into atoms of lead (82 pro­tons), or atoms of oxy­gen (8 pro­tons) into atoms of cal­i­fornium

(98 pro­tons). If they are lucky, a minute quan­tity of seaborgium is formed.

That does not mean you can mash to­gether any two atoms to make new el­e­ments in­def­i­nitely, and physi­cists seem to be close to the limit of what is pos­si­ble. They are hope­ful of find­ing not only El­e­ment 119 but also El­e­ment 120, but prac­ti­cal prob­lems stand in the way.

For one, the last 20 syn­thetic el­e­ments, from ein­steinium (99) to oganes­son (118) are use­less. They form and dis­in­te­grate in less than the blink of an eye. But that’s al­right. The rule is: if a new atom sur­vives for just one hun­dred-tril­lionth of a sec­ond, it can be recog­nised as a new el­e­ment. The only rea­son physi­cists spend years search­ing for th­ese un­sta­ble el­e­ments is to study their prop­er­ties. But it’s a rather ex­pen­sive hobby that gov­ern­ments are not keen to fund any­more.

How ex­pen­sive? To cre­ate just 3 atoms of El­e­ment 112, the Riken re­search in­sti­tute in Ja­pan spent $3 mil­lion in elec­tric­ity bills and salaries of tech­ni­cians. Run­ning the ac­cel­er­a­tor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley costs $50,000 a day, and the el­e­ments needed for an ex­per­i­ment can cost many times more. For in­stance, when the team try­ing to cre­ate El­e­ment 117 sought a lit­tle bit of berke­lium (97) from the Oak Ridge Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory in Ten­nessee, they were quoted a price of $3.5 mil­lion. They waited for more than three years to get it cheaper.

NOT WORTH IT: New el­e­ments cost mil­lions of dol­lars to cre­ate but have no prac­ti­cal use

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