On the Hunt for the Periphery of the Periodic Table: A Journey to Discover the Island of Enhanced Stability


The quest for the limits of the periodic table continues, with scientists exploring the possibility of additional superheavy elements. The island of enhanced stability, a concept central to this search, is also discussed in this article, and the challenges and developments in this intriguing scientific journey.

Since the turn of the century, six new chemical elements, the very icon of chemistry, have been discovered and added to the periodic table of elements. These new elements have high atomic numbers, up to 118, and are significantly heavier than uranium, which has the highest atomic number (92) in larger quantities on Earth.

They Are the Unanswered Questions About Superheavy Species

These discoveries raise intriguing questions. How many more of these superheavy species are waiting to be discovered? Where, if at all, is a fundamental limit in creating these elements? And what are the characteristics of the so-called island of enhanced stability?

In a recent review, experts in theoretical and experimental chemistry and physics of the heaviest elements and their nuclei summarize the significant challenges and offer a fresh view on new superheavy elements and the limit of the periodic table.

It Is the Island of Stability of Superheavy Nuclei

In the first half of the last century, researchers realized that the mass of atomic nuclei was smaller than the total mass of their proton and neutron constituents. This difference in mass is responsible for the binding energy of the nuclei. Specific numbers of neutrons and protons lead to stronger binding and are called “magic.”

Scientists observed early on that protons and neutrons move in individual shells similar to electronic shells, with nuclei of the metal lead being the heaviest, with filled shells containing 82 protons and 126 neutrons—a doubly magic nucleus.

Early theoretical predictions suggested that the extra stability from the following “magic” numbers, far from nuclei known then, might lead to lifetimes comparable to the age of the Earth. This led to the notion of a so-called island of stability of superheavy nuclei separated from uranium and its neighbors by a sea of instability.

They Are the Challenges and Future of Superheavy Elements

Numerous graphical representations of the island of stability depict it as a distant island. Decades have passed since this image emerged, prompting a fresh look at the stability of superheavy nuclei and the journey to the limits of mass and charge.

In their recent paper titled “The Quest for Superheavy Elements and the Limit of the Periodic Table,” the authors describe the current state of knowledge and the most critical challenges in the field of these superheavy elements. They also present vital considerations for future development.

It Is the Current State of Superheavy Elements

Elements up to oganesson (element 118) have been produced in experiments, named, and included in the periodic table of elements in accelerator facilities around the world, such as at GSI in Darmstadt and in the future at FAIR, the international accelerator center being built at GSI. These new elements are highly unstable, with the heaviest ones disintegrating within seconds at most.

A more detailed analysis reveals that their lifetimes increase towards the magic neutron number 184. For example, in the case of copernicium (element 112) discovered at GSI, the lifetime increases from less than a thousandth of a second to 30 seconds. However, the neutron number 184 is still a long way from being reached, so the 30 seconds are only one step on the way.

Since the theoretical description is still prone to significant uncertainties, there is no consensus on where the longest lifetimes will occur and how long they will be. However, there is a general agreement that truly stable superheavy nuclei are no longer to be expected.

They Are the Revisions and Future of the Superheavy Landscape

This leads to a revision of the superheavy landscape in two critical ways. On the one hand, we have indeed arrived at the shores of the region of enhanced stability and have thus experimentally confirmed the concept of an island of enhanced stability. On the other hand, we do not yet know how significant this region is—to stay with the picture. How long will the maximum lifetimes be, with the height of the mountains on the island typically representing the stability, and where will the most extended lifetimes occur?

The Nature Reviews Physics paper discusses various aspects of relevant nuclear and electronic structure theory, including the synthesis and detection of superheavy nuclei and atoms in the laboratory or astrophysical events, their structure and stability, and the location of the current and anticipated superheavy elements in the periodic table.

It Is the Research and Discoveries on Superheavy Elements

The detailed investigation of the superheavy elements remains an essential pillar of the research program at GSI Darmstadt, supported by infrastructure and expertise at HIM and Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, forming a unique setting for such studies.

Over the past decade, several breakthrough results were obtained, including detailed studies of their production, which led to the confirmation of element 117 and the discovery of the comparatively long-lived isotope lawrencium-266 of their nuclear structure by a variety of experimental techniques of the structure of their atomic shells as well as their chemical properties, where flerovium (element 114) represents the heaviest element for which chemical data exist.

Calculations on production in the cosmos, especially during the merging of two neutron stars, as observed experimentally for the first time in 2017, round off the research portfolio. In the future, the investigation of superheavy elements could be even more efficient thanks to the new linear accelerator HELIAC, for which the first module was recently assembled at HIM and then successfully tested in Darmstadt, so that further, even more exotic and therefore presumably longer-lived nuclei will also be experimentally achievable.

An overview of the element discoveries and first chemical studies at GSI can be found in the article “Five decades of GSI superheavy element discoveries and chemical investigation,” published in May 2022 in Radiochimica Acta.

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