Chemists create and capture einsteinium, the elusive 99th element

Scientists have uncovered some of its basic chemical properties for the first time.

Scientists have successfully studied einsteinium — one of the most elusive and heaviest elements on the periodic table — for the first time in decades. The achievement brings chemists closer to discovering the so-called “island of stability,” where some of the heftiest and shortest-lived elements are thought to reside.

The U.S. Department of Energy first discovered einsteinium in 1952 in the fall-out of the first hydrogen bomb test. The element does not occur naturally on Earth and can only be produced in microscopic quantities using specialized nuclear reactors. It is also hard to separate from other elements, is highly radioactive and rapidly decays, making it extremely difficult to study.

Researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) at the University of California, recently created a 233-nanogram sample of pure einsteinium and carried out the first experiments on the element since the 1970s. In doing so they were able to uncover some of the element’s fundamental chemical properties for the first time.

Very hard to study 

Physicists know almost nothing about einsteinium.

“It is hard to make just because of where it is in the periodic table,” co-author Korey Carter, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa and former scientist at Berkeley Lab, told Live Science.

Like other elements in the actinide series — a group of 15 metallic elements found at the bottom of the periodic table — einsteinium is made by bombarding a target element, in this case curium, with neutrons and protons to create heavier elements. The team used a specialized nuclear reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, one of the few places in the world where einsteinium can be made.

However, the reaction is designed to make californium — a commercially important element used in nuclear power plants — and so it makes only a very small amount of einsteinium as a byproduct. Extracting a pure sample of einsteinium from californium is challenging because of similarities between the two elements, which meant the researchers ended up with only a tiny sample of einsteinium-254, one of the most stable isotopes, or versions, of the elusive element.

“It is a very small amount of material,” Carter said. “You can’t see it, and the only way you can tell it is there is from its radioactive signal.”… Via Live Science

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