What Are the Newest Elements?
What Goes into an Elemental Name?
At a somewhat record-breaking approval speed the IUPAC (the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry) approved the four newest elements names for the elements 113, 115, 117, and 118 in 2016. Normally this process takes one to two years, but the IUPAC finished in five months because no changes needed to be made to the proposals.
The elements that complete the seventh row of the periodic table are now formally named nihonium (Nh), moscovium (Mc), tennessine (Ts), and oganesson (Og) There are some new cool things because oganesson (O Ga Ne S S O N) can be spelled with element symbols, nihonium is named after Japan, and Mc is a new element symbol that is also a valid Roman numeral.
These names came after a process where the public was invited to express their opinions on the four proposed names and their corresponding symbols. According to the IUPAC guidelines, an element can only be named after a mythological concept or character, a place or geographical region, a mineral, an elemental property or a scientist.
What Makes an Element?
You might be wondering why we chose 4 elements for the “newest” ones. That’s mostly because nihonium, moscovium, tennessine, and oganesson were all discovered within 7 years of each other. They were also all classified as official elements as a lump-sum (at that time the four had yet to be assigned names).
What might be piquing your interest more is the numbers of our new elemental emissaries. Intuitively, you would guess elements are discovered and named in order. But we skipped 114 and 116, so what’s the deal? That’s actually because elements are not numbered by discovery order. For our readers who have studied the most basic chemical principles (or just know weird random facts), you might know what an element’s number actually means. If it makes you feel better, elements 114 and 116 were discovered 2-3 years before 118. Oganesson was followed by moscovium, nihonium, and tennessine (in that order).
An element’s number is a count of how many protons an atom’s nucleus has (nuclei can be made of both protons or neutrons, with electrons orbiting them). Protons are positively charged, electrons negative, neutrons are neutral. So under this definition, hydrogen is named hydrogen because a hydrogen atom has just a single proton. As you get larger atoms, their mass allows them to start supporting neutrons and the like. This is where you get isotopes (for when you hear discussion of what the “most stable” isotope is). That’s basically an atom with differing amounts of neutrons in it, since the element’s name and number are determined by.
How Are New Elements Made?
It’s a lot less elegant than you might want it to be. Don’t count that out though, making elements is serious business, and requires a lot of technology. But it boils down to taking two elements and smashing them together until eventually the nuclei of those atoms fuse. There’s a bit of a random element (pun intended) to this ordeal, which is why we can discover things out of order.
The elements we’re discovering and making in a lab now, though, are all synthetic. You’re not gonna find them anywhere else. This is because they weren’t really meant to exist, most of the new elements don’t last very long at all. For example the most stable isotope of nihonium decays in less than 10 seconds. Many other isotopes this high on the period table cannot even last a full second before decaying.
Now that you are up to speed, let’s see how well you (now) know your elements per letter: