Superheavy Elements: Nuclear Physicist’s Voyage Towards a Mythical Island

Theories were introduced as far back as the 1960s about the possible existence of superheavy elements. Their most long-lived nuclei could give rise to a so-called “island of stability” far beyond the element uranium. However, a new study, led by nuclear physicists at Lund University, shows that a 50-year-old nuclear physics manifesto must now be revised.

The heaviest element found in nature is uranium, with a nucleus containing 92 protons and 146 neutrons. The nuclei of heavier elements become more and more unstable due to the increased number of positively charged protons. They therefore decay faster and faster, usually within a fraction of a second.

A “magical” combination of protons and neutrons may however lead to elements with rapidly increasing lifetimes. Just such a “magical” number of protons has long been predicted for the element flerovium, which has the atomic number 114 in the periodic table. In the late 1960s a theory was introduced by Lund physicist Sven-Gösta Nilsson, among others, that such an island of stability should exist around the then still undiscovered element 114.

“This is something of a Holy Grail in nuclear physics. Many dream of discovering something as exotic as a long-lived, or even stable, superheavy element,” says Anton Såmark-Roth, doctoral student of nuclear physics at Lund University.

Inspired by Nilsson’s theories, the researchers have studied the element flerovium in detail and made ground-breaking discoveries. The experiment was conducted by an international research team led by Dirk Rudolph, a professor at Lund University.

Within the framework of the research program FAIR Phase-0 at the particle accelerator facility GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung in Darmstadt, Germany, up to 6×1018 (6,000,000,000,000,000,000) calcium-48 atomic nuclei were accelerated to 10 percent of the speed of light. They bombarded a thin film of rare plutonium-244 and, through atomic nuclear fusion, flerovium could be created, one atom at a time. In the 18-day-long experiment, the research team then registered radioactive decay of some tens of flerovium nuclei in a detection device specially developed in Lund.

Through the exact analysis of decay fragments and the periods within which they were released, the team could identify new decay branches of flerovium. It was shown that these could not be reconciled with the element’s previously predicted “magical” properties.

“We were very pleased that all the technology surrounding our experimental set-up worked as it should when the experiment started. Above all, being able to follow the decay of several flerovium nuclei from the control room in real time was very exciting,” says Daniel Cox, postdoc in nuclear physics at Lund University.

The new results, published in the research journal Physical Review Letters, will be of considerable use to science. Instead of looking for the island of stability around the element 114, the research world can focus on other as yet undiscovered elements.

“It was a demanding but, of course, very successful experiment. Now we know, we can move on from element 114 and instead look around element 120, which has not been discovered yet. Now the voyage to the island of stability will take a new course,” concludes Anton Såmark-Roth.

Reference: “Spectroscopy along Flerovium Decay Chains: Discovery of 280Ds and an Excited State in 282Cn” by A. Såmark-Roth et al., 22 January 2021, Physical Review Letters.
DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.126.032503

Atomic PhysicsLund University
Comments ( 6 )
Add Comment
  • Andres Albarran

    You know the location of the island could very well be in nature itself with-in every single molecule which is isolatable through extraction from a plant’s microbial build up. i know from the article obviously higher amounts of protons means “unstable” yet no matter the case even if when fused together the nuclei do become proton dominant isotopes Helium-3 being stable means also can a 100 proton to 50 neutrons be stable the process isn’t figured out should be used over “impossible” not to mention the possibility of causing electron captures as the molecule fuses as to change the final outcome into a neutron dominant isotope would perhaps lead to stability. trippy stuff imagine delta-9 crystals that have been converted from molecular structure to atomic structure the stuff already survives radiation in its molecular state i can’t imagine the amount of energy it holds to release when there’s no chemical bonds weakening its capability. its a beautiful pain to see the very truth before my eyes i had no idea theories date back to the 50s i know about the extended perodic table that’s about it. I’d say knowing that i could have been a leader in the field of nuclear physics had i paid attention to my schooling had i tried harder after having been told in sixth grade that i was another Joaquin Albarran case had i not dropped out although i do have my high school equivalency had i not attempted to commit suicide it having disqualified me from joining the air force i near qualified for nuclear engineer with my pre-asvab score the amount of mistakes ive committed in my younger life bothers me. i know there’s still time and hopefully the US offers tuitionless college in the future i can only dream of affording higher learning and a brain computer interface implant.

    • Andres Albarran

      …my theory for the photosynthetic section of the extended perodic table has at minimum 391,000 chemicals that’s just saying one molecule within every known plant can be structurally converted from molecular to atomic from nuclei to nucleus the true number of chemicals would be in the billions id say the person to write the mathematical equation that allows conversion to occur naturally must be brilliant.

      • Emre Yucel

        On what universe do plants engage in nuclear reactions? This is just meaningless word salad.

  • Real Morrissette

    You have a lot of imagination for sure. You should publish your stuff in a scientific journal that has peer review and see what the experts think about it.

  • Arsham1054kpr

    Arsham1054

  • xABBAAA

    … a black whole is a very, very, very heavy element…