US, Russian Scientists Create Super-Heavy Element 118

U.S. and Russian scientists on Monday announced they have created the newest super-heavy element, element 118.

Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in collaboration with researchers from Dubna, the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Russia, discovered the element during experiments last year.

The researchers observed atomic decay patterns, or chains, that establish the existence of element 118. In these decay chains, previously observed element 116 is produced via the alpha decay of element 118.

“The decay properties of all the isotopes that we have made so far paint the picture of a large, sort of flat ‘island of stability’ and indicate that we may have luck if we try to go even heavier,” said Ken Moody, Livermore’s team leader.

‘Island of Stability’

An “island of stability” is a term from nuclear physics that describes the possibility of elements which have particularly stable “magic numbers” of protons and neutrons.

This would allow certain isotopes of some transuranic elements (elements with atomic numbers greater than 92) to be far more stable than others, and therefore decay much more slowly.

Element 118 is expected to be classified as a noble gas that will lie just below radon on the periodic table of elements.

“The world is made up of about 90 elements,” Moody said. “Anything more you can learn about the periodic table is exciting. It can tell us why the world is here and what it is made of.”

The discovery brings the total to five new elements for the Livermore-Dubna collaboration. Members of the Livermore team include Moody, Dawn Shaughnessy, Mark Stoyer, Nancy Stoyer, Philip Wilk, Jacqueline Kenneally, Jerry Landrum, John Wild, Ron Lougheed and former LLNL employee Joshua Patin.

“This is quite a breakthrough for science,” said Chemistry, Materials and Life Sciences Associate Director Tomas Diaz de la Rubia. “We’ve discovered a new element that provides insight into the makeup of the universe. For our scientists to find another piece of the puzzle is a testament to the strength and value of the science and technology at this laboratory.”

Skeptics Surface

The announcement stirs memories of one of physic’s most embarrassing cases of scientific misconduct in history. Scientists said they created element 118 in 1999, but withdrew their claims in 2002 amid charges of falsified data.

While the more recent research has been peer reviewed, Dr. Martin Blume, editor in chief of American Physical Society, reminds the world that a peer review is not a statement of authenticity. It’s merely a statement that there are no obvious errors.

“I wouldn’t call this a breakthrough,” Blume told TechNewsWorld. “It is an interesting development in nuclear structure. That is why there is so much attention [being paid] to it. There has been speculation over the years that there is what is called an ‘island of stability,’ but there is more work to do before this can be confirmed.”

Looking Ahead

As for the future, the LLNL-Dubna team will continue to map the region near the “island of stability.” In 2007, the team plans to look for element 120 by bombarding a plutonium target with iron isotopes.

“The heavy element community will continue to search for new elements until the limit of nuclear stability is found,” Mark Stoyer said. “It is expected that limit will be found.”

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