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Scientists Announce Creation of Atomic Element, the Heaviest Yet

Calcium ions travel through an accelerator toward a rotating target of californium in this illustration.
Calcium ions travel through an accelerator toward a rotating target of californium in this illustration. (By Sabrina Fletcher And Thomas Tegge -- Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

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By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Scientists in California and Russia announced yesterday that they have created the heaviest atomic element ever made, adding a new item to the universal menu of matter known as the periodic table and revealing fresh secrets about the nature of atoms, the fundamental units of physical stuff.

The new, radioactive element, which has not yet been formally named but is being referred to variously as ununoctium (Latin for "one-one-eight"), eka-radon (beneath radon on the periodic table) or simply element 118, did not linger long.

Indeed, as with most "super-heavy" elements -- which are not known to exist in nature but have been synthesized by slamming smaller atoms together -- the three atoms of ununoctium created in the latest experiments came and went in a literal flash.

But during their brief tenures of about nine ten-thousandths of a second each in a laboratory on Russia's Volga River, those three atoms revealed much about the laws that govern the behavior of matter, scientists said.

And while practical applications for such fleeting phenomena are difficult to envision, experts said they were confident some would appear -- especially if researchers can leverage the findings to make even larger atomic constructs that might have lifetimes of minutes, months or longer.

"One never knows what the application of the things you find may be," said Darleane Hoffman, a professor of chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, tossing out the example of plutonium-239, the key fissile ingredient in atomic bombs, first created in 1941.

Physicists cautioned that the finding must be considered provisional for now. That is true of all experiments that have yet to be independently replicated, but especially so for the finding of element 118, whose discovery was first reported by a Berkeley team in 1999 and then retracted two years later when it became clear that the results were fraudulent.

The last new element to be confirmed was No. 111, roentgenium, discovered in 1994.

But scientists involved in the new find -- and others who reviewed the report, published in the October issue of the journal Physical Review C -- said they were virtually certain that what they saw in that millimoment was indeed a microhunk of ununoctium.

"I would say we're very confident," said team member Nancy Stoyer of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., estimating that the odds of the result being false were less than 1 in 10,000.

The team was led by Dawn Shaughnessy of Livermore and Yuri Oganessian of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia.

Every naturally occurring thing in the universe is made from a modest celestial palette of 92 elements, from hydrogen to uranium. Each element has an atomic number (from 1 to 92) representing the number of positively charged protons in that atom's core, or nucleus. Many variants, or isotopes, of each element also exist through the addition of varying numbers of uncharged neutrons to those nuclei.


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