They were temporarily called ununtrium (Uut), ununpentium (Uup), ununseptium (Uus), and ununoctium (Uuo), but the time of the uu’s is over — the new elements have received proper names. Meet nihonium (Nh), moscovium (Mc), tennessine (Ts), and oganesson (Og) — elements 113, 115, 117, and 118.
There are 118 discovered chemical elements. Chemical elements are classified by the number of protons in their nucleus (something also called the “atomic number”). The atom has a nucleus, where the protons and electrons are, and a cloud of electrons. The number of protons essentially decides the atomic number, whereas the number of neutrons can also vary, producing isotopes (variations) of the same chemical element.
Elements are placed in the periodic table based on their atomic number. It starts with hydrogen (which has 1 proton), then helium (2 protons), and so on. The numbers get higher and higher. Iron, for instance, has 26 protons; gold has 79; uranium has 92.
The highest number of protons in an element that we know of is 118. Initially, this element was only theorized, but a while ago, we were telling you about the discovery (or rather, the confirmation) this element, and three others.
The four new chemical elements have been permanently added to the periodic table and have become the newest additions to the periodic table. But these newest elements didn’t have names.
Naming the newest elements
Teams of researchers from the US, Russia, and Japan all got the chance to name their respective new elements, and this is what they came up with:
- Nihonium with the symbol Nh, for the element with Z =113,
- Moscovium with the symbol Mc, for the element with Z = 115,
- Tennessine with the symbol Ts, for the element with Z = 117, and
- Oganesson with the symbol Og, for the element with Z = 118.
It’s not hard to see how some of these names comes from places.
Nihonium comes from “Nippon”, a Japanese word for Japan. Moscovium comes from Russia’s capital Moscow, tennessine comes from the American state of Tennessee and Oganesson is named after 83-year-old Russian physicist Yuri Oganessian. According to Richard Van Noorden from Nature, this is only the second time a new element has been named for a living scientist.
“The first such occasion led to huge controversy, when in 1993 a team at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory proposed naming element 106 seaborgium for US nuclear-chemistry pioneer Glenn Seaborg,” says Van Noorden. “At the time an IUPAC committee rejected the proposal, after passing a resolution that elements not be named for living scientists, but it ultimately relented.”
The tennessine name is also a bit odd, being named after a state, but as it turns out the state has a long-running tradition in chemistry research.
“Tennessine is in recognition of the contribution of the Tennessee region, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, to superheavy element research,” says the IUPAC, the organization in charge of naming the elemenets (among others).
The IUPAC has some pretty strict rules when it comes to naming elements, which must be named after either:
- A mythological concept or character (including an astronomical object);
- A mineral, or similar substance;
- A place or geographical region;
- A property of the element;
- A scientist.
Unlike “classical” elements (like gold, hydrogen etc), these elements are not found in nature (or at least, not in the nature we have on Earth) — they have to be synthesized in the lab. They’re also very radioactive: they decay so fast after they’ve been created that researchers often only have split seconds to study them.
Moscovium, for instance, has several isotopes, and the most stable of them, called moscovium-290, has a half-life of only 0.65 seconds. Just around 100 atoms of moscovium have been observed to date. For tennessine, it’s 0.051 seconds; for oganesson, it’s 0.0007 seconds. Needless to stay, studying these elements is not an easy feat.
Finding (or creating) more elements
These four elements are the newest elements in the periodic table, and they’ll likely stay that way for some time.
It seems a bit counterintuitive: if adding more protons makes new elements, can’t you just mash new protons in and create more and more elements?
At first glance, it seems that way, and it seems you can just go on forever — but the laws of physics don’t exactly play that way. Elements tend to become less and less stable at higher atomic numbers.
Researchers’ quest for new elements hasn’t stopped, but it’s getting harder and harder to synthesize new elements. Several attempts have been made to synthesize elements past 118 (and some efforts are still ongoing), but they have not yet been successful. In fact, synthesis has been attempted for every element up to and including “unbiseptium” (atomic number 127), except unbitrium (Z = 123). For now, all elements beyond the atomic number 118 are purely hypothetical.
But could we, in the future, create even more elements? The answer is likely ‘yes’, up to a point.
In one landmark study, chemist Pekka Pyykkö used computer modeling to calculate the properties and positions of elements up to an atomic number of 172 — but there’s no real consensus on what these elements would be like. The only consensus there is that it’s gonna be very difficult to create these elements. Pyykkö himself said that finding the heaviest elements from this list is like hitting a golf ball in Tokyo and making a hole-in-one on top of Mount Fuji.
More recent calculations have even overturned that limit, suggesting that a 173rd element could also exist, and beyond that, the nucleus would simply crash — after 173, the whole quantum hell breaks loose. But there’s a big difference between the theoretical limit and the one we can achieve practically.
If researchers get lucky, some of these super exotic elements could have specific (doughnut-shaped) nuclei that would make them a bit more stable. If researchers can figure out what atoms have these shapes, they would be the best candidates for synthesis, but for now at least, the four new elements remain at the end of the known periodic table.
But just in case new elements would be discovered, what would you name them? Leave your suggestions in the comment section — bonus points for creativity.
The Japanese team is already close to discovering a new element, which ScienceAlert would like to call drogonium, in honor of the biggest dragon in the Game of Thrones series and books. Personally, I’d say something like aragornium could work out a bit better, how would you name the new chemical element if you were given the chance?