Smash Element

Smash Element

M. V.

It’s not often that tiny atoms cause a huge smash. But last January, Russian scientists made history: They created the newest element, or smallest unit of matter, in a lab atom smasher. Element 114 is the latest to join the periodic table, the chart of all existing elements. The new element has no name yet, doesn’t exist in nature, and lasted exactly 30 seconds before it disintegrated.

So why bother to make it? “It’s like a new adventure,” says Ken Moody, a chemist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. “We don’t know what we’re going to get!”

Chemists from Russia’s Joint Institute of Nuclear Research (JINR) joined two existing elements–calcium and plutonium–to forge a brand new one. Calcium has an atomic number of 20, plutonium 94–add them up and you get 114. The atomic number refers to the number of protons, or positively charged particles, in a single atom of each element. (Scientists arranged the periodic table according to atomic number. Hydrogen, for example, is element number 1–it only has 1 proton.)

JINR chemists bombarded a plutonium metal strip with beams of calcium atoms. After 40 days of experiment, they finally managed to fuse or bond an atom of calcium with one of plutonium.

Scientists, not nature, have created every element larger than uranium (atomic number 92). These man-made elements, also called “heavy elements,” are often unstable–they exist briefly before decaying, or breaking apart into smaller elements.

Some scientists claim to have already created elements 116 and 118, though neither existed for more than a few microseconds.

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