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Is it possible to synthesize a pure metal that is strong as steel and also light as aluminium, like the one used to make Captain America’s shield (vibranium)? Or perhaps we could make something like dilithium, which helped Star Trek’s spaceships travel faster than light? After scientists around the world (literally hundreds of them) filled out the last row of our periodic table with elements such as Nihonium and Livermorium, they immediately set out for a new task.
For the past few years, scientists around the world have been trying to synthesize the heaviest known element in the universe – Element 119. However, even after repeated attempts, they have failed in their efforts. Thus, the question that comes to mind is: will we be able to synthesize any more new elements? Let’s take a closer look at the problem!
How are new elements formed?
Almost all the elements trace their origin back to the high-pressured hearts of stars that died during the formation of the Universe. A few of these elements trace back their ancient ancestry, directly to the Big Bang! The great mystery is, how do scientists manage to replicate these nearly inconceivable celestial processes?
To understand this better, we need to understand the composition of an atom (the building block of any element) and the factors that differentiate one atom from another. Although all the components of an atom are essential to their existence, the scientific community defines them solely based on the number protons present in their nucleus. All particles with 8 protons are oxygen, regardless of the number of electrons or neutrons contained within them.
In order to create a new element, it is required to load the nucleus of a known element with more protons. Stars do this through a process called nuclear fusion, in which lighter nuclei combine under immense pressure to form a heavier nucleus. Nuclear fission, on the other hand, is a process in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller components.
Humans have created elements in the past
Scientists drawing inspiration from the stars bombarded atomic nuclei with a neutron, which later converted into a proton, a neutron and an antineutrino (a charge-less and massless particle). However, this technique for fusion stopped working after Fermium (element 100).
Thereafter, scientists replaced neutrons with other elements and changed the parameters accordingly. Hence, neon (10) was bombarded onto uranium (92) to generate nobelium (102). Similarly, lead (82) was bombarded with Zinc (30) to achieve Copernicium (112). As the nuclei of the newly formed elements become more massive, the process to create them also gets more complicated.
Why is it tough to synthesize newer elements?
To form element 117, scientists simply smashed calcium (20) into berkelium (97). That is, they fused the protons to create a new Super-heavy element, just like many others. These super-heavies are stable only for milliseconds, as the newly formed nucleus requires an enormous amount of energy to overcome the repulsive force of all the protons being mushed together. Otherwise, the nuclei would simply rebound from each other.
As the elemental nuclei increase in size, the electrons orbiting them also gain energy and approach near-light velocities. This is a part of science that has not been adequately investigated and involves all sorts of quantum principles, which go beyond the scope of this article. Thus, many more types of energies must be considered, some of which might remain undiscovered at this point.
Can we synthesize any more new elements?
Theoretically, scientists will eventually find a super-heavy element that will be stable enough to last longer than milliseconds, perhaps even for hours or days. This stability comes when the right number of weak force-emitting neutrons are present to balance out the proton’s repulsiveness within the nucleus. That kind of perfect balance is found in a theoretical region called the Island of Stability.
As an element gets more massive, there is a great battle inside its nucleus between the nuclear forces of the neutrons, which are trying to keep it together, and the repulsive forces of the protons, which are trying to break free. If enough neutrons are incorporated in the nucleus, the elements could potentially last for years. This particular combination is the Island of Stability that scientists are seeking, and it seems like it could be 184 neutrons with various proton combinations (Francis, Helmenstine). However, technology will also need to advance.
According to Yuri Oganessian (element 118 has been named after him), heavier projectiles than 48Ca beams, perhaps 50Ti or V or Cr, would be needed to start the research into the synthesis of heavier elements. Additionally, more substantial targets like curium would be required, along with more powerful particle accelerators and more efficient fragment separators.
Japanese/American collaboration teams in an interview for Chemistry World discussed the idea of bombarding curium with vanadium (started in December 2017) to hunt for elements 119 and 120; a different Russian/American collaboration plans to begin the search for these elements in late 2019, using berkelium and titanium.
A Final Word
As we’ve learned, synthesizing newer elements will not be an easy task. Although it may seem monumentally tricky, the scientists of today are definitely up for it. A decade ago, if you would have told someone that we would be able to formulate gold and other elements in laboratories, you would have been called a fool. But that happened, which shows that anything is possible in today’s world, provided it behaves the laws of physics!