Four ‘super-heavy’ elements join periodic table


Toss your old chemistry books – four new elements have been added to the periodic table.

Elements 113 (ununtrium), 115 (ununpentium), 117 (ununseptium) and 118 (ununoctium), distinguished by their atomic number (how many protons they have), will complete the seventh row of the periodic table.

These elements are “so big that they can’t hold themselves together,” said Tyson Wagner, self-proclaimed “science guy” at Halifax’s Discovery Centre, an interactive science centre for children and youth. The discoveries will allow scientists to better understand how atoms or molecules form, he said.

The new additions are called “super-heavy elements” which refers to their place on the table as well as their characteristics: unstable and lab-made. Even their names are temporary, until permanent ones are assigned.

White holds a sample of the element Bismuth (Photo: Jillian Morgan)

Their lifespan of a fraction of a second make them of limited value, but the discovery puts scientists closer to the “Island of Stability:” a theory that super-stable, long lasting, lab-made elements valuable for research and studies exist beyond the seventh row.

Super-heavy elements are created by smashing two lighter atoms together at exceptionally high speeds using particle accelerators. Sensors on the equipment confirm the discovery through an examination of particle debris from the crash.

Mary Anne White, professor of chemical research at Dalhousie University and recent recipient of the Order of Canada, said these labs can be the size of a football field.

“One in a billion, or maybe even not that many, of these collisions actually have the right conditions to make two atoms come together to form a bigger, heavier atom.”

White said if scientists were to reach the Island of Stability, these elements could have “super special properties we can’t get with any other atoms we have already.”

The last time an element was added to the periodic table was in 2011 – elements 114 (flerovium) and 116 (livermorium). White said it’s difficult to predict when the next finding will be due to the large-scale operations of these projects.

It could “take decades to build the equipment, years to test it, maybe seconds to try the experiment.”

The next step is to name the atoms, with the final decision being made by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. With so few elements, each name needs to be carefully chosen.

White hopes for a name and symbol that accurately reflects the name of the element. She said, for example, that the symbol for potassium is “K,” named for its Latin origin, remains a source of confusion among beginner chemists.

“It’s not like naming stars,” says White.

Element 113 was created in East Asia and elements 115 and 117  were created in joint by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the U.S. and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Russia, which discovered element 118 in 2006.