As scientific heroes go, Dimitri Mendeleev is right up there. If his name doesn’t naturally trip off the tongue, every chemist knows his discovery: he is the father of the Periodic Table as we know it.
Back in 1869 Mendeleev drew up the first successful table, basing it on atomic weights. Over 150 years later, we continue to use this system and modern chemists couldn’t imagine a world without it. No wonder this Russian visionary was recently celebrated via his own ‘Google doodle’ marking his 182nd birthday.
“The new elements on the block are the first to be added to the table since 2011”
Incredibly, he had the foresight to know the table was incomplete and actually left gaps for undiscovered elements where he believed there were incomplete patterns. At the start of this year, as the rest of the world was welcoming in 2016, scientists from Japan, the US and Mendeleev’s homeland Russia, were toasting the arrival of four brand new elements – just as he predicted.
The new elements on the block are the first to be added to the table since 2011, when elements 114 and 116 were added. They were verified on 30th December 2015 by the US-based International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. The untitled 113, 115, 117 and 118 are still waiting for their names and symbols. The respective research groups will be given the opportunity to name them according to IUPAC rules; after a mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, a property or a scientist. This will also decide the symbol allocated to the elements. Element 113 will be the first element discovered and named by researchers in Asia.
These ‘new’ super-heavy elements are man-made on earth and have a very short life-span (1000th of a second) as they decay into other, lighter elements. So we shouldn’t be surprised that sceptics may – rightly or wrongly – wonder why so much money is being squandered on “blue sky” research. After all why are we creating elements which do not exist for long enough to serve any real purpose? It’s a fair question.
“To scientists, this is of greater value than an Olympic gold medal”
But isn’t it our job to probe, ponder and predict, just like Mendeleev? After all, these elements can give us an insight into the process of star death, when it is believed that heavy atoms of this sort are produced. So although they may not exist on earth that does not mean that they don’t exist in space. They can also tell us about radioactive decay, and maybe one day reveal how to deal with radioactive waste; which would be a huge leap forward for the planet and the potential future of our energy supply. It has also been suggested that elements of this type are on the shore of “the island of stability”; the point at which super-heavy elements of this type become stable and are able to exist for lengthy periods of time. If so, they could probably find a use.
If you won’t take my word about just how important this discovery is, trust Ryoji Noyori, former Riken president and Nobel laureate in chemistry who said: “To scientists, this is of greater value than an Olympic gold medal”.
So Row 7 may now be complete, but does that mean the end for the campaign to complete the table? I doubt it. In the true spirit of Mendeleev’s vision, we now hear that there could be ‘119 and beyond’. And with the “Island of stability” seeming so close, scientists will no doubt accept the new challenge of constructing Row 8, although we may have a wait ahead of us.
New Periodic Table mug anyone?
Image by Hans Splinter via Flickr