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Heaviest in the World

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If you haven’t looked at a periodic table of the elements since high school chemistry class, you might be surprised to learn that it has changed quite a bit. The discovery of new superheavy elements in the last few years means there are additions to the chart.

One of those new elements, no. 117, was discovered by an international team of scientists, including two from the College of Arts and Science—Joseph H. Hamilton, Landon C. Garland Distinguished Professor of Physics, and Akunuri V. Ramayya, professor of physics. Other groups involved in the discovery are the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, Dubna, Russia; Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; and the Research Institute for Advanced Reactors, Dimitrovgrad, Russia.

Element 117, which now goes by ununseptium (Latin for 117), has the distinction of being the world’s heaviest element and one of the most newsworthy.

“There have been more than 250 articles in newspapers around the world because people just have an interest in the chemical periodic table and the elements,” Hamilton says. “These discoveries broaden our understanding of the basic building blocks of the world around us.”

New superheavy elements may have practical applications in the near future.

“These elements may prove very useful as new compact energy sources because after they decay, they undergo fission,” Hamilton says. “When they undergo fission, they give off an enormous amount of energy and lots of neutrons.”

Another element that undergoes spontaneous fission—Californium 252—is currently used as an energy source in oil well exploration, space probes and the space shuttle. The superheavy elements would give off even more energy.

“Another reason to study these elements is that they may have a different chemistry than is expected,” Hamilton says. “This opens up a new area of study that’s unexplored at the present time and I think that it will capture people’s imaginations to see that there are new chemical behaviors that, in a sense, have been predicted but not seen.”

The name of element 117 is going to change, says Hamilton, who played a key role in the element’s discovery. “I was crucial in getting the group together and in getting the 249Bk target essential for the discovery,” he says modestly. “As a result of that, I’m going to get to name the element. I can’t tell you the name, but it will bring distinction to the region.”

photo credit: Kwei-Yu Chu/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

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