Earlier this year, it was triumphantly announced that four brand new elements had been discovered, those occupying positions 113, 115, 117, and 118 on the Periodic Table. Although they were given provisional names, the time has come for some official declarations, and 117 is henceforth known as "tennessine".
For the few of you who haven’t made the connection yet, this element is named after the US State of Tennessee, the location of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) where it was originally brought into being.
The discovery also honors Vanderbilt University, the University of Tennessee, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (California), and Russia’s Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, all of which contributed to its discovery.
“The historic discovery of tennessine is emblematic of the contributions Tennessee institutions like Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University make toward a better world,” Tennessee Govenor Bill Haslam said in a statement. “On behalf of all Tennesseans we thank this world body for honoring our state this way.”
The world body in this case refers to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), the group responsible for, among other things, validating the existence of new elements and confirming their names. Tennessine was originally discovered in 2010, but it was only officially confirmed as being physically real in the last days of 2015.
The new element will take the memorable and sensible symbol Ts, thankfully not going down the linguistically bemusing route of Sn for tin or Hg for mercury, for example.
Ts is a superheavy element, a type that does not occur in nature. By exposing one particular isotope – a variant of another element that has the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons – to a beam of another, the researchers found that on very rare occasions, two heavy nuclei combined to form Ts.
In this case, calcium-48 and berkeleium-249 were used to produce tennessine. It’s a halogen, an element like chlorine and fluorine. Unlike these, however, Ts is incredibly unstable and only exists for fractions of a second at a time.
Although Ts isn’t that useful in itself, it forms part of a desire to find previously undiscovered elements that are oddly stable. These hypotheticals could open up new paths for engineering possibilities that scientists have yet to even dream of.
Image in text: The new element as it will appear on the Periodic Table of Elements. ORNL