The Newcomers to the Periodic Table

Four new elements have been added, filling out the table’s seventh row.


The world is going to need new science textbooks.

Four new elements have been added to the periodic table, finally filling out its seventh row, in a change approved by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), which governs such decisions.

The elements were discovered in the past several years by researchers in Japan, Russia, and the United States, IUPAC said in a statement on December 30. Chemists and chemistry enthusiasts are, and we mean this in the best way possible, nerding out.

“The chemistry community is eager to see its most cherished table finally being completed down to the seventh row,” said Jan Reedijk, a Dutch professor and president of IUPAC’s Inorganic Chemistry Division, which will now begin accepting suggestions for names and symbols for the new elements from the scientists involved the discoveries.
The new kids on the block—elements 113, 115, 117, and 118—are “superheavy,” a label given to elements with more than 104 protons. Saying that researchers “discovered” them is actually misleading—the elements do not occur in nature, and were created in laboratories using particle accelerators.
Element 113, whose temporary working name is ununtrium (Uut), was discovered by Japanese researchers at the Riken institute. Elements 115 (Uup), known as ununpentium, and 117, known as ununseptium (Uus), were discovered by researchers from the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Element 118, referred to as ununoctium (Uuo), was discovered by a joint team of Dubna and Livermore researchers.

The periodic table is the most important reference for anything chemistry. Elements are arranged left to right and top to bottom in order of increasing atomic number, which is the number of protons in an atom of a given element.

The addition of the quartet comes five years after element 114, or ferovium (Fl), and element 116, livermorium (Lv), got their permanent spots on the table. Back then, in 2011, NPR offered a handy explanation of the very difficult process by which scientists create new elements these days:

  1. Smash together atoms of two elements.
  2. Hope their nuclei fuse.
  3. If they do, you have a new element. Congratulations!

And then, you don’t. At least not until you fire up the particle accelerators and try to re-create that fusion again, which produces only a few atoms of a new element. Such artificial elements usually exist for less than a second before they decay into other elements. The atoms of element 113, for example, lasted for less than a thousandth of a second, according to the Riken. After researchers twice successfully created 113, it took seven years before they could do it again a third time.

“To scientists, this is of greater value than an Olympic gold medal,” said Ryoji Noyori, former president of Riken and a Nobel laureate in chemistry, to reporters in Japan last week.

The researchers behind the newest additions to the periodic table will now suggest permanent names and two-letter symbols for their baby elements.

“New elements can be named after a mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, a property or a scientist” IUPAC said in its statement. The names and symbols will be reviewed for “consistency” and “translatability into other languages,” since they are used internationally.

This process isn’t easy, either. As Malcolm W. Browne wrote in The New York Times in 1995, it took more than three years of “sometimes acrimonious debate across the borders of many nations” to come up with names for elements 104 through 109, which were created by researchers in the U.S., Russia, and Germany. “[T]he naming of a chemical element is influenced by national pride, professional rivalry and personal sensitivities,” Browne wrote. “[T]he picking of a single name can provoke as much back-room bickering and bargaining as the selection of an international beauty queen.”