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Sunday, December 4, 2011

How to build a superheavy element

Two teams (one from the University of Oslo and the other an American/Russian team from the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, Dubna, Russia) are competing to create the world’s heaviest element with an atomic number of 119 (meaning that each nucleus contains that numbers of protons).  Want to get in on the action?  Here’s what you’ll need:

1.  The ability to smash two smaller atoms together in such a way that they combine to form the new heavier element.  
You’ll want a particle accelerator for this step.

2.  The proper ingredients.
To create an element with 119 protons, you’ll need to start with some pretty heavy atoms.  Such atoms themselves tend to be radioactive, meaning that they only last so long before decaying, an event measured in ‘half-lives’ (the amount of time required for half the substance to disappear). The labs working on the superheavy element race are trying to combine Berkelium (atomic number 97; half-life of 320 days) with titanium (atomic number 22).

3.  The ability to detect any successful fusions.
The physicists don’t expect to create more than one atom of element 119 per month, each of which will have a half-life of less than a microsecond.  You’ll need an ultrafast and powerful detector if you don’t want to miss one.

Of course, there is another way to create superheavy elements (those with atomic numbers above 104), but it requires starting with a supernova.

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