This Superheavy Atom Factory Is Pushing the Limits of the Periodic Table

February 19, 2020

As we push the Periodic Table of the Elements further and further into the unknown, its familiar columns and rows are threatening to crumble. What’s next for this science icon?

Superheavy elements exist for a fraction of time and are nearly impossible to catch. But understanding them could force us to reimagine the most iconic scientific symbol of all time: the periodic table.

In 1869, Russian chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev, laid the foundations for what would become the modern periodic table. Mendeleev arranged the known elements in order of increasing atomic weight—the average number of protons, neutrons, and electrons in an element's nucleus.

And since the 1800s, scientists have been working to slowly fill out the rest of the periodic table, isolating the elements Mendeleev predicted from various materials. The table’s design was revisited and perfected as more elements were added, but as nuclei got heavier, finding them became a bit more complicated. 

In order to continue—scientists couldn’t just isolate elements from existing materials, instead they had to create them

And to do that, they used a particle accelerator, or cyclotron. 

Cyclotrons are large instruments that accelerate ions to a fraction of the speed of light and have been used to discover heavy elements from curium to plutonium. But most recently, a team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory collaborated with a lab in Russia to complete the periodic table’s 7th row—the home of the superheavy elements.

Join College alumnae Dawn Shaughnessy (Ph.D. '00, Chem) and Jacklyn Gates (Ph.D. '08, Chem) to find out more about the hunt for new elements that don’t typically exists here on Earth and what it could mean for the periodic table in this episode of Focal Point. 

This Superheavy Atom Factory Is Pushing the Limits of the Periodic Table