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First Superheavy Element Found In Nature 296

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the maybe-knock-of-high-fructose-corn-syrup dept.
KentuckyFC writes "The first naturally occurring superheavy element has been found. An international team of scientists found several nuclei of unbibium in a sample of the naturally occurring heavy metal thorium. Unbibium has an atomic number of 122 and an atomic weight of 292. In general, very heavy elements tend to be unstable but scientists have long predicted that even heavier nuclei would be stable. The group that found unbibium in thorium say it has a half life in excess of 100 million years and an abundance of about 10^(-12) relative to thorium, which itself is about as abundant as lead." I'd also like it known that my spell checker did not know 'unbibium' before today, but it is now one word closer to encompassing all human knowledge.
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First Superheavy Element Found In Nature

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  • Island of Stability (Score:5, Informative)

    by HungSoLow (809760) on Monday April 28, 2008 @09:20AM (#23223788)
    Here's a link describing the Island of Stability [wikipedia.org]
    Neat stuff: apparently they've theorized a bunch of these super-heavy elements, they just haven't been observed yet (until now)!
  • by wildzer0 (889523) on Monday April 28, 2008 @09:30AM (#23223962)
    Island of stability [wikipedia.org].
  • Re:Awesome! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 28, 2008 @09:49AM (#23224250)
    There are two major issues with thorium in nuclear reactors.

    Firstly thorium itself is not fissile, but Uranium-233 which can be created from it is. Using thorium for nuclear fuel therefore requires a breeder reactor and associated reprocessing. At the moment this is more expensive than using enriched uranium in light water reactors, but it may change if the costs of reprocessing decrease.

    The second problem is the reprocessing itself. The Uranium made from thorium will contain traces of highly radioactive gamma emitters, and current reprocessing techniques are unable to adequately shield the workers from this radiation. There is also very little experience with thorium based reprocessing.

    When it comes from nuclear proliferation thorium reactors would need safeguarding just as a conventional reactor would. The main reason is that while thorium itself is not usable in nuclear weapons, the Uranium-233 which is breed from it would be quite suitable. If that were to prove unfeasible it would also be possible to use a highly-enriched U-233 core surrounded by a U-238 breeder blanket to produce Pu-239, used in plutonium based weapons.

    Basically if you are going to run a nuclear reactor you will need safeguards to prevent proliferation. This need not be a reason why we can't use nuclear power, it just means we shouldn't give the technology to every dictatorship on the planet that is willing to sign a piece of paper.
  • Re:names (Score:3, Informative)

    by Jeremy Erwin (2054) on Monday April 28, 2008 @09:53AM (#23224294) Journal
    It may not even be Unibibium. Marinov et al write

    Evidence was obtained for the existence of an isotope with a mass that matches the predictions for atomic mass number 292 and Z around 122.
    The authors suggest that Ubiquadium (Eka Uranium, Z=124) is also a slim possibility.

  • Re:Just Unbibium? (Score:3, Informative)

    by guruevi (827432) <evi AT smokingcube DOT be> on Monday April 28, 2008 @10:03AM (#23224472) Homepage
    Scientist are still looking for several elements on the periodic table. The 'inventor' of the periodic table, Mendelev noticed that elements ordered on the table have certain mathematical properties against each other and thus calculated where certain elements should appear and what some of their properties should be (so they know what to look for). Of course, some (especially the super-heavy elements) are synthesized (although they might appear naturally but are not yet discovered) highly radioactive and some of them have very short half-lives (hours, seconds or even milliseconds).
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 28, 2008 @10:04AM (#23224476)
    I looked at the abstract for the paper. The ambiguous wording is because they don't know the atomic number of the element yet. They know the atomic mass is 292, and based on theoretical calculations of isotope lifetimes, they hypothesize the atomic number is 122. They haven't confirmed that, though.
  • by Detritus (11846) on Monday April 28, 2008 @10:09AM (#23224582) Homepage
    Even if your bomb can convert matter to energy with 100% efficiency, it's limited in the amount of energy that it can produce. e=mc**2 and all that, about 20 kilotons per gram.
  • Re:Awesome! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Mr. Slippery (47854) <tms.infamous@net> on Monday April 28, 2008 @10:31AM (#23224972) Homepage

    Thorium where it is found is a good and efficient nuclear fuel source...It actually amazes me we don't use Thorium more.

    Thorium isn't fissile, so it's not just a matter of swapping U for Th.

    Current fission reactors are based on same chain reaction that makes nuclear weapons work. Some people want to breed Th into U to keep using these reactor designs, but the cool thing about Th is that you can use it in a subcritical accelerator-driven system [wikipedia.org]. This is a truly safe form of nuclear reactor - pull the plug and the reaction stops, no way that it can melt down. It can actually "burn off" nuclear waste. And because no plutonium is created and the mix of uranium isotopes it produces is hard to weaponize, it's proliferation resistant and not a terrorist target the way a conventional plant is. Thorium is much more abundant than uranium, and easier to mine and process.

    If fission has a future, it's accelerator-driven systems. We ought to be putting our reasources toward funding the R&D needed to deploy them instead of building dirty and dangerous uranium or plutonium fission plants.

  • Re:Just Unbibium? (Score:4, Informative)

    by sdpuppy (898535) on Monday April 28, 2008 @10:39AM (#23225106)
    Kind of interesting...

    Single molecules. and nuclei, as conditions allow are detected all the time in mass spectrometers - thats what they do.(actually quantum efficiency of commonly used detectors are not that sensitive and will detect maybe 1 out of every 10 or 100 particle that comes its way - but it takes one lucky particle to make the signal.)

    In mass spec, 292 is a common 'background" signal when analyzing organics- most likely from plasticizer - but could be something else. There was no description of the equipment that they used or whether they were detecting singly charged (or - unlikely - the nuclei fully stripped of electrons)

    Great discovery if it is what it is.

  • Re:Awesome! (Score:3, Informative)

    by gnuman99 (746007) on Monday April 28, 2008 @11:51AM (#23226304)
    It is already everywhere, just like Mercury. Thorium and Uranium are released from coal power plants in quite large amounts - we are not talking pounds but tons and tons. 2-3 parts in a million of coal is Uranium and I think Thorium is around 4-5 parts per million.

    Most people don't even know that the lakes and oceans poisoned with mercury and those tuna advisories are all thanks to coal power plants. But then we better have coal or even the so called "clean coal" instead of nuclear power.
  • Re:Just Unbibium? (Score:2, Informative)

    by liegeofmelkor (978577) on Monday April 28, 2008 @04:18PM (#23229902)
    I had doubts similar to those you expressed before I read the article, but there are some reasonable points in favor of the authors' conclusion. The sample preparation includes exposure to a hot (6000-8000 K) plasma, which should break down large molecules while preserving nuclei.

    Additionally, the authors make a binding energy argument. As a consequence of relativity, two molecules with the same number of protons, neutrons and electrons (2-butyne and 1,3-butadiene, for example) will not possess exactly the same mass because one stores more energy than the other. The extra "weight" from the energy stored in a single nucleus as compared to the lesser energy stored in a multi-nucleus molecule makes the single nucleus more massive on the order of .03 amu. The equipment used, which WAS specified in the article, should be precise enough to distinguish these mass differences (Vendor Website [thermo.com]).

    To a non-expert, the experiment looks sound, but I'll believe it once it gets off the arXiv and into a peer-reviewed journal.

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