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What exactly are elements? The first thing that might come to mind is oxygen, considering its crucial role in sustaining human life. However, elements such as hydrogen, nitrogen, and phosphorus are equally essential. In our lives, we do not typically realize the amount of elements we interact with on a daily basis. Take our smartphones for example, which are made up of a vast array of elements—over 30 of them, including copper, lithium, aluminum, silicon, yttrium, terbium, and more. These elements can all be found naturally in the environment. However, in the past century, scientists have been artificially creating new elements in a search called “element hunting”.
To understand element hunting, we first need to understand what elements even are. An element is made up of only one type of atom, but each element has tons of atoms. Atoms are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons, which are, respectively, positively, neutrally, and negatively charged. In the center of an atom is the nucleus, which consists of the atom’s protons and neutrons. Electrons revolve around the nucleus in groups called valence shells. Atoms tend to want to fill up all their valence shells with electrons to become a type of element known as a noble gas. The number of protons or electrons in an atom is referred to as the atomic number.
In theory, creating a new element involves starting with the element having the highest atomic number, currently oganesson at 118, and adding more protons to its nucleus.
Theoretically, adding a single proton will result in beta-minus decay—where a neutron is transformed into a proton and an electron. To induce beta-minus decay, scientists use a machine called a particle accelerator. In this process, an atom with a smaller atomic number is used as a projectile in a beam, while an atom with a larger atomic number serves as the target. For example, in the best case scenario, by firing neon (element 10) at uranium (element 92), nobelium (element 102) can be created. The process itself sounds simple, but it has a few difficulties. As more new elements are created, the probability of making new ones drastically decreases. This is due to atomic structure: the protons and neutrons are packed together in the nucleus. The protons exert a repulsive force towards other protons, so the neutrons function as a binding energy to hold the nucleus together. However, in heavier elements with more protons, the forces holding the nucleus together tend to become much more fragile. Moreover, Paul Karol, the chair of IUPAC, said “there’s a sweet spot to get them to come together and merge". Otherwise, the two elements can either bounce off or obliterate each other. Einstein once said that element hunting was “like shooting birds in the dark in a country where there are only a few birds”. Additionally, element hunting can get expensive. In the search for nihonium, element 113, which requires calcium-48 and neptunium-237, getting simply one gram of calcium-48 cost $250,000. Moreover, operating the particle accelerator, essential to such experiments, can cost over billions. This experiment to discover nihonium lasted 9 years, further emphasizing the extensive resources required for such pursuits. Furthermore, another issue with element hunting is that newer elements have an increasingly lower half-life, or the time it takes for half of the element to radioactively decay. The half-life of element 118 is less than a second, and even lower than a millisecond—radioactively decaying after 0.89 milliseconds. It is near impossible to work with element 118 at that point.
Given the low probability of finding new elements, why are scientists still on the hunt?
The answer lies in the vast potential such discoveries hold. By analyzing the patterns in stable nuclei, Marie Curie discovered “magic numbers” in atoms; currently, we have only discovered elements 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, and 82 with magic numbers. It is believed that there is another magic number, 126, which is supposedly more stable and could possibly further propel the element hunt. However, scientists cannot be sure what will come next. No one knows when or if the periodic table will ever end. Yet, scientists tirelessly continue their explorations. Should elements 119 and 120 be discovered, potentially by the RIKEN laboratory in Japan, Dubna in Russia, or GSI in Germany, they will start a new row in the periodic table. New elements can lead to the discovery of new life-saving treatments, revolutionary technologies, new materials, or even the limits of mankind. The possibilities are truly endless.