london-bus

Super-heavy elements are like English buses, it seems – you wait around for ages and then two come along at once.

Not only have we got the naming of element 112 to ponder, but a team from Berkeley have managed to confirm the creation of element 114 in some experiments by a Russian group over 10 years ago, popping up another stepping stone towards the fabled ‘island of stability’ at which point superheavy atoms might have lifetimes of hours, days or even millions of years (depending on your level of optimism).

It turns out that element 114 decays by emitting an alpha particle (2 protons and 2 neutrons) to make element 112, which literally makes copernicium the ‘daughter’ of the new element 114!

copernicus

Regular readers of this blog will know that we’ve been discussing the naming of element 112 since Iupac ratified the discovery earlier in the year (if you’ve missed out on the excitement so far you can catch up here and here). Disregarding the many interesting suggestions from CW blog-readers, Sigurd Hoffmann – who made the original discovery – has proposed the name copernicium (in honour of Nicolaus Copernicus) and the symbol Cp.

This has caused a bit of a kerfuffle among chemists, with some complaining that Cp is confusing because of its association with cyclopentadienyl metal complexes and heat capacities etc. Although, as Neil over at Nature points out, it’s all a bit academic and context should overcome that kind of confusion – the chances of anyone ever making a cyclopentadienyl copernicium complex are pretty slim given that you can count the number of atoms of the element that have ever existed on one person’s fingers.

But in a recent letter to Nature, Juris Meija of the Canadian Institute for National Measurement Standards raises the point that Cp might not be allowed as a symbol anyway, depending on how Iupac interpret the rules. It is apparently not allowed to suggest a name that has already been considered for another element, and before it was officially named Lutetium, element 71 was known by some as casseiopeium (with the symbol Cp). Therefore Iupac could potentially rule it out on a technicality. Meija suggests Cc as an alternative, since pretty much every other sensible letter combination with a C is already bagged. On a related note, Cornell chemist Paul Chirick jokingly told Katherine from Nature that he thought we should maybe use Kp instead, to recognise Copernicus’s Polish origins, since he would have spelled his name Mikolaj Koppernigk.

island-of-stability

But anyway – that’s all pretty old news now, because element 114 is where it’s really at. A decade ago, Russian scientists at Dubna (immortalised in the name of element 105, dubnium) first claimed to have made a few atoms of 114, but it’s taken a while for another group to repeat the results and verify the discovery. Heino Nitsche and his group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory managed to make two nuclei of 114 in eight days of constant experiments – they were apparently hoping for six, but hey, that’s the way the plutonium target crumbles. The two atoms were of different isotopes of 114, but their decay patterns matched the Russian studies, confirming the discovery. The nuclei of 114 have all so far been only fleetingly stable, so we’re still not beached on the ‘island of stability’, but perhaps it’s just poking over the horizon.

This means that the Russian group will probably be formally recognised as the discoverers of 114 and get to propose a name, but I wouldn’t hold your breath – given how long it takes for the wheels to turn at Iupac, we could have to wait a little while.

Look out for the full story on the Chemistry World news site next week

Phillip Broadwith

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