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The Race for Element 113 Might Be Won

After a nine year experiment, scientists in Japan might have created a third atom of the element that would be 113

smithsonian.com

More elements means more cupcakes! Image: oh estelle

When Dmitri Mendeleev first put together the periodic table, he left blank spots for elements that weren’t yet discovered. He’d probably be quite surprised, however, to learn that we’ve now identified 112 elements—some for just fractions of a second—and might have finally succeeded in adding element 113.

Scientific American reports that after a nine year experiment, scientists in Japan might have created an atom of the element that would be 113. Two times before, this experiment has yielded results that the team thought would prove that they’d found the element, but each time, the evidence didn’t convince their peers. This time, though, the results “seem to answer all critics,” according to Scientific American.

But before credit goes to Japan, the U.S. and Russia will have something to say about it. They too have been working to capture the elusive 113 and claim to have created not three, but 56 atoms of it since 2003.

So goes the highly competitive and extremely difficult element creation business. Not a single one of those 56 sightings has been verified by the “independent committee of experts appointed to rule on such matters.” Yes, there are independent committees to rule on precisely who, when and how a new element has been spotted.  The Japanese work has been focused on fusing bismuth and zinc, using a high powered accelerator.

Scientific American writes:

This fusion is extremely unlikely. Over nine years, the beam has been switched on for a total of 553 days, during which time 130 quintillion (1.3 × 1020) atoms of zinc have been fired at the bismuth target. Indeed, says Morita, the team knew that success would be unlikely from the start: they calculated that they would see only 3–6 successes in every 100 quintillion attempts.

In the United States, they’ve taken a different approach. They bashed calcium into americium, creating element 115, and as that element decayed they claimed to see 113. This method is far easier than the Japanese experiment. It works over and over. But these decaying isotopes haven’t been studied before, and the decay creates 113 for a fleeting moment. Which makes it very hard to catch in the act.

In fact, elements 112, 114 and 116 have all been named, with their odd neighbors missing. It will take some experts and some reviewing to figure out who, if anyone, found those missing pieces. Scientific American writes:

Ultimately, naming rights will depend on the committee’s decision. Paul Karol, a chemist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who was on the technical committee that turned down 113 and 115 last year, says that the panel will now consider both groups’ claims. No one should get their hopes up for a speedy resolution: last year’s report took three years from experiments to decision. But Karol says that was an exceptional delay and this review will be faster.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Meet the New Elements
Elements on the Periodic Table
117th Element “Ununseptium” Confirmed, Will Get Name Not Stolen From Avatar

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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