Earth Science - Other

Japanese Russian and American Scientists Compete for Bragging Rights to Element 113

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The search for element 113 is not a new one. Scientists in Japan have been smashing atoms for 9 years in attempts to create the element and claim to have three atoms completed. But scientists from the US and Russia claim to have already created 56 atoms of the element since 2003.

Before anyone can claim the prize, a group of experts drawn from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) must decide whether the atom sightings can be confirmed. Right now, confirmation seems to be a long way off.

Currently, the name for the incredibly unstable atom is Ununtrium - meaning one-one-three.

According to Scientific American, this new and man made element would have an atom with 113 protons and 165 neutrons in its nucleus. This is such a rare occurrence that the scientists only expected 3 to 6 successes for every 100 quintillion times they attempted to create the new atom.

In other words, the new element may already have been found on many occasions, but confirmation and naming rights have to be officially determined. The unlikely odds of creating the correct conditions may have convinced the practicing scientists that they created the atom, but the ruling scientists are looking for unassailable evidence of a real outcome.

That is an extremely tricky proposition because the new atom is never observed directly. Impossibly fast fission and decay reactions create very short lived and unstable elements. Proving that the element was created and existed for a while is something that can be argued again and again.

The Japanese worked with bismuth and zinc atoms. The bismuth was bombarded with the zinc with a goal of fusing the atomic nuclei of these elements to create element 113. A decay reaction occurs and charged particles ('α-decay')  embed themselves in a surrounding silicon semiconductor. Scientists examine the debris and look for a final product that has the desired makeup. The Japanese will have to prove that the 'a-decay started with element 113. 

The Russians and Americans went an entirely different route. They bombarded Americum, or element 95 with calcium molecules, to create element 115. That element quickly decayed into a dubnium element and the scientists are sure that element 113 is part of the chain that created the dubnium.

The group of experts produced a report last year that could not confirm that the Japanese experiment produced an 'a-decay that started with element 113. For the Americans and Russians, the team would have to find that element 113 produced dubnium. This may be a more promising proposition because that team produced more stable, if different isotopes.

In the end, the new element is an incredibly short lived and indirectly observed reaction to an atom smashing event. Scientists can put out announcements claiming to have created the element, but they do not get the naming and bragging rights until a very difficult analysis is completed. The Americans, Russians and Japanese are competing for the credit and there are no final answers yet.

More about this author: Elizabeth M Young

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