How Scientists Plan To Enshrine Tennessee On The Periodic Table Of Elements | Nashville Public Radio

How Scientists Plan To Enshrine Tennessee On The Periodic Table Of Elements

Jun 8, 2016

One of the newest elements on the periodic table could soon be named "tennessine," in honor of the state's role in helping to discover it six years ago.

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, which oversees the periodic table, announced the tentative names of four new elements Wednesday morning — including element 117, tennessine.

You could say the discovery of element 117 came out of a party.

In 2008, Vanderbilt University hosted a symposium celebrating nuclear physics professor Joe Hamilton's 50th anniversary at the school. Two of his friends were introduced to each other there — a leading Russian scientist and a researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in East Tennessee — and they began collaborating on the hunt for new elements.

Oak Ridge used one of its reactors to produce an element with 97 protons, called berkelium. It was shipped over to a lab in Dubna, Russia, where researchers put it in an accelerator and bombarded it with calcium, which has 20 protons.

And with enough energy, some of those atoms fused together: 97 protons from one, 20 from the other, forming a new element with 117 protons.

It was not a simple task, says Jim Roberto, the scientist from Oak Ridge who came to Hamilton's symposium. 

"We made six atoms in an experiment that required six months of accelerator time around the clock," he says, laughing. "Not a way to make a lot of stuff."

The atoms were also unstable: They started to decay almost immediately, with a half-life of about 70 milliseconds.

Still, IUPAC verified the new element and allowed its discoverers to name it. It was Hamilton who first suggested the name "tennessine." The team of researchers hopped on an international conference call to discuss, and they agreed with his suggestion.

"That's a very exciting thing," he tells WPLN. "The state of Tennessee will be recognized in every physics and chemistry book worldwide, forever."

The name will now go through a five-month review process.

Then it will take a permanent place on the periodic table, even if the atoms themselves are fleeting.

The New Names

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) says newly discovered elements can be named after one of five categories: a mythological concept or character, a mineral, a place or geographical region, a property of the element or a scientist.

  • Element 113: Japanese researchers, who discovered this element, have proposed the name "nihonium" (Nh), which means "Japan" or "the Land of the Rising Sun" in Japanese. From IUPAC:

"While presenting this proposal, the team headed by Professor Kosuke Morita pays homage to the trailblazing work by Masataka Ogawa done in 1908 surrounding the discovery of element 43. The team also hopes that pride and faith in science will displace the lost trust of those who suffered from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster."

  • Element 115: This element was discovered by the team that includes researchers in Oak Ridge, Nashville and Dubna. They proposed the name "moscovium" (Mc), after Moscow.
  • Element 117: This was discovered by the same team. They proposed the name "tennessine" (Ts), first suggested by Joe Hamilton at Vanderbilt.
  • Element 118: Russian and American researchers want to name the element "oganesson" (Og) after Yuri Oganessian, the Russian scientist who came to Hamilton's symposium. Oganessian has helped discover several synthetic elements.