A group of researchers working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have confirmed the existence of the superheavy element 114, furthering research in the field of nuclear science.
The team, headed by Berkeley Lab scientists Heino Nitsche — who is also a UC-Berkeley professor of chemistry — and Ken Gregorich, synthesized two atoms of element 114 in January of this year, 10 years after a group of researchers in Dubna, Russia, claimed to have first made the particle. The results of the experiment were published on Sept. 24 in the Physical Review Letters journal.
The process used to create element 114 involved smashing together atoms of calcium and plutonium, which have atomic numbers of 20 and 94, respectively. The atomic number of an element refers to the number of protons in its nucleus.
The calcium and plutonium particles were sped up inside of Berkeley Lab's 88-inch Cyclotron particle accelerator and collided at very high speeds. On two occasions the particles fused, forming the superheavy product.
"When you give the calcium ions very high energy and aim them at the plutonium, their nuclei occasionally have enough energy to overcome the repulsion they have with the plutonium nucleus, and they stick together," Nitsche said.
According to Nitsche, a major goal of nuclear science is to discover an "island of stability," a superheavy element with an ideal number of protons and neutrons that allows it to stay intact for a long period of time.
All elements heavier than uranium are currently unstable and decay rapidly. For example, one of the two atoms of element 114 produced by the Berkeley Lab broke apart after about one-tenth of a second, and the other after about half a second, Nitsche said.
He added that while there is no way to make a profit with the research at this time, it may lead to discoveries in the future.
"These results can be used in our search for the island of stability by improving models that predict the number of protons in a stable superheavy element," Nitsche said. "We also want to know whether the patterns of the periodic table hold true for the region of the heaviest elements. How is matter built, and what makes it tick?"
However, while there may be no obvious practical use for this type of research right now, Mitch Andre Garcia, a Berkeley graduate student who participated in the project, said a rationale still exists for exploring fundamentally "pure" sciences like nuclear science.
"Pure science is about understanding the machinery of the universe, and it is about training students like myself how to analyze and tackle complex problems," Garcia said in an e-mail. "The value that society sets to these goals should be the same as that which it sets to education as a whole."