Christian Gibbons

The Periodic Table Has Turned: Four New Elements

Christian Gibbons

In high school, I took two different chemistry classes. Although I found the subject interesting, and looked forward to every lab, the most advanced thing I ever did with chemicals was conduct experiments with hydrochloric acid.

As one might expect, professional chemists attempt and accomplish a lot more than that. As a matter of fact, chemists around the world haven’t just been working with chemicals—they’ve been creating entirely new ones, too!

Of the 118 elements on the periodic table, several are man-made. Four of those—elements 113, 115, 117 and 118—have now become formally recognized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), and are in the process of receiving new names. This latest update means that the seventh row of the periodic table is finally complete.

But it certainly wasn’t easy. The elements—previously called ununtrium (Uut), ununpentium (Uup), ununseptium (Uus) and ununoctium (Uuo), respectively—are all superheavy and therefore decay extremely quickly, making their existence difficult to confirm and study. Their creation was no walk in the park, either. In order to create element 113, for instance, Japanese researchers had to “[bombard] a thin layer of bismuth with zinc ions travelling at about 10 percent the speed of light.” 

The process behind the proposed names of the elements reflects how overcoming this challenge was truly an international effort. Ununtrium’s final name may be nihonium (Nh), in recognition of the fact that it was the first element discovered in Asia (Nihon is one way to say Japan in Japanese). Ununpentium and ununoctium might become moscovium (Mc) and oganesson (Og), after the Russian city and Russian scientist behind their discoveries, respectively. And ununseptium may end up as tennessine (Ts), after—you guessed it—Tennessee. Regardless of their final names, these four elements offer a tremendous testament to human ingenuity.

But what exactly are the limits of that ingenuity? Scientists are uncertain about where the periodic table might go next. As a matter of fact, they aren’t sure how far the periodic table can go, either. A previous estimate made by physicist Richard Feynman predicted that it would have to end after element 137, because the electrons of elements past that point would need to violate special relativity to exist. More recent hypotheses place the periodic table’s limit at 173, beyond which atoms may not even resemble what we recognize as atoms anymore.

Even still, each new element created adds to scientists’ understanding of the universe. If element 137 ever appears in classrooms, our understanding of the periodic table will be entirely different.

Did You Know?

The highest temperature recorded in our solar system was produced here on Earth. The Guinness World Record for the highest man-made temperature was achieved in August of 2012 by scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Their experiment created a temperature of over 5 trillion kelvins—over 300 thousand times the temperature of the core of our sun.

Photo Credit: Horia Varlan

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