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Science & Environment

Element 115 Could Be Near Elusive 'Island Of Stability'

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Remember the periodic table from your school days? Well, it's still growing. Scientists say they've created one of the heaviest chemical elements ever seen. Element 115 doesn't even have a name yet. But as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, the researchers say even heavier elements may be just around the corner.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Rodi Herzberg says making super-heavy elements is just like baking.

DR. RODI HERZBERG: You take all the ingredients and then you throw them all together in a very controlled way.

BRUMFIEL: If you've done your whisking, set the oven at just the right temperature...

HERZBERG: What you get out is a perfectly baked cake.

BRUMFIEL: Or if you're a nuclear physicist like Herzberg, a new element, element 115. OK. So it's not exactly like baking a cake. Scientists start with elements that already exist in nature and combine them together. This creates big new elements packed to the brim with positively charged protons. But positive charges repel, so...

HERZBERG: If you just put positive charges into it, you get something that tries to rip itself apart eventually. And that is why it is very, very difficult to create these super-heavy elements.

BRUMFIEL: In fact, that's one reason element 115 isn't official. Russian scientists first spotted it a few years ago, but they couldn't be sure. They couldn't measure it before it blew itself apart. Now, Herzberg at the University of Liverpool in the U.K., together with colleagues in Europe, the U.S. and Japan, have detected an X-ray signal that makes it much more likely 115 exists, if only briefly. The work will appear in Physical Review Letters. So what's this exotic new element good for?

HERZBERG: It has nothing, nothing whatsoever to do with antigravity devices or spaceships or anything else. It really is a down-to-earth element 115.

BRUMFIEL: But 115 could be on the edge of something really magical. Nuclear researchers call it the island of stability. Elements on this island are even heavier than 115, but strange quantum effects keep them from breaking apart. They can stick around for minutes, days, maybe even years.

HERZBERG: It could well be that there are elements that live long enough to make milligram or microgram quantities eventually and do something with them.

BRUMFIEL: In the meantime, 115 doesn't even have a name. If further study shows it really, really exists, an international committee will decide which of its many discoverers around the world will get naming rights. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.