A century ago, a German physicist named Albert Einstein revolutionized the scientific world with his discovery of the photoelectric effect, which proved that light is both a particle and a wave.
Awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for his work, Einstein would later contribute to theories related to nuclear fission and fusion, something that could have paved the way for the invention and detonation of nuclear weapons, as well as the nuclear energy.
So when elements previously unknown to science were discovered in the chemical remnants of a nuclear explosion 69 years ago, it made sense for scientists to name what they found after the great physicist, adding “einsteinium” to the periodic table.
Now, 100 years after Einstein won the Nobel Prize, scientists were finally able to observe the chemical behavior of this elusive highly radioactive element. What they learned could help scientists further expand our understanding of the periodic table, including elements that have not yet been added.
Einsteinium (Es) is element number 99 of the periodic table. It was first discovered in 1952 when a thermonuclear device called “Ivy Mike” it was detonated on the island of Elugelab in the Pacific Ocean (now part of the Marshall Islands).
The detonation of Ivy Mike was the first demonstration of a hydrogen bomb. Such an explosion generates four times more energy than nuclear fission bombs (such as those dropped on Japan in 1945) and four million times more energy than burning a similar amount of coal.
It was in the aftermath of the Ivy Mike explosion, amidst the chemical debris, which was found atomic number 99 for the first time. Only a few 200 atoms of this element, which shows how rare it is. It took nine years of hard work for scientists to synthesize element 99 in a laboratory, something they accomplished in 1961.
The team of researchers who made the discovery thought of naming the element “pandamonium,” since the project team behind Ivy Mike had operated under the acronym “PANDA.” But in the end, they decided to honor Albert Einstein.
Too hot to handle
Perhaps unsurprisingly, very little is known about einsteinium. An element that was born from a thermonuclear explosion, it is incredibly difficult to experience due to its extreme radioactivity.
Not only is it literally too hot to handle – one gram of einsteinium produces 1,000 watts of power– but it also emits harmful gamma rays, so working with the element requires researchers to wear protective gear at all times.
Also, the most common form of einsteinium (called Es-253, based on the number of neutrons in the nucleus of the atom) has a half-life of only 20 days. That means that after 20 days, the einsteinium breaks down in half. After a couple of months, the small amounts of the element that scientists can work with practically disappear.
Therefore, it is not surprising that scientists have taken almost 70 years to understand this element. But now, a team from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States, have managed to get enough einsteinium to run some basic tests, breaking new ground in experimental chemistry and fundamental science.
In their study, the researchers explain how they managed to use just 200 nanograms of Es-254 (a rare form of einsteinium with a half-life of 275.5 days) to conduct their experiments. A nanogram is only one billionth of a gram, so these experiments were carried out on an incredibly small scale.
Chemistry of einsteinium
By conducting chemical experiments with einsteinium for the first time, the research team succeeded in synthesizing a chemical compound that included the element to examine how it might interact with other elements in a compound.
This was done under the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, which emits high-energy light at chemical compounds to allow their structure to be exposed. This method is similar to how silhouettes are formed, but on an atomic scale.
A great find were the bond distances between atoms of einsteinium and other atoms around it, such as carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen. Knowing the bond distances of einsteinium for the first time means that we can predict what other combinations of compounds containing einsteinium will look like, adding entirely new combinations to our current knowledge of chemistry.
Crucially, the researchers also managed to measure the state of valencia einsteinium, which is the charge of the atom. The charge on an atom controls how many other atoms it can bind to. This quantity is of fundamental importance in chemistry, as it determines the shape and size of the building blocks that the universe is made of.
The einsteinium is found in a ambiguous position in the periodic table, between the valence numbers, so setting its valence helps us understand more about how the periodic table should be arranged.
Einsteinium is currently the chemical element heavier It can be examined in this way, so it is exciting to chemists that this recent study has broken new ground.
The challenge facing future chemists is trying to synthesize heavier elements in equally measurable quantities, revealing more about the chemicals that make up our world.
* Robert A Jackson is a professor at the School of Science QuPhysics and Physics from Keele University, in UK.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.