LAS VEGAS - Two UNLV researchers were part of an international team of scientists from Russia and the United States who discovered the newest addition to the periodic table, element 117.
The team included scientists from the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR), the Research Institute for Advanced Reactors, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), Oak Ridge National Laboratory, UNLV and Vanderbilt University.
Six atoms of element 117 were produced by bombarding two known elements, calcium and radioactive berkelium, using an advanced particle accelerator at the JINR facility in Dubna, Russia. The team established the existence of the new element by studying the decay patterns of the six atoms produced.
"This is a significant breakthrough for science," LLNL director George Miller said. "The discovery of a new element provides new insight into the makeup of the universe and is a testimony to the strength of science and technology at the partner institutions."
UNLV radiochemistry doctoral student Megan Bennett and her faculty advisor, UNLV health physics professor Ralf Sudowe, provided data analysis support for the project.
"Discovering a new element is, in essence, the holy grail for nuclear chemists," said Sudowe. "It tests our understanding of nuclear physics and will lead to greater knowledge of the chemistry of previously discovered heavy elements."
According to Bennett, the by-products of the discovery of element 117 also fed into her primary research interest, which involves analyzing another rare element known as dubnium.
Researchers found that as element 117 decays, in some instances it produces an isotope of dubnium with the longest half-life to date of more than 33 hours. This is more than six hours longer than previously created, allowing researchers like Bennett their greatest opportunity to study how dubnium behaves chemically. A better understanding of the chemistry of dubnium and other newly created elements is necessary to determine where they fit on the periodic table of elements.
"It's definitely exciting to play even a small role in the discovery of a new element," said Bennett. "This experiment will open up new opportunities to improve our understanding of the chemistry of both recently discovered elements and those that have been on the periodic table for years."
Since 1940, 26 new elements beyond uranium have been added to the periodic table of elements. Once an independent research team confirms the discovery of element 117 - which could take years due to the scarcity of berkelium - it will be named and officially placed on the periodic table.
An article documenting the discovery will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Physical Review Letters.
View an animation of the creation of element 117 (courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory).