How Do You Make a New Element?

(Last Updated On: December 29, 2020)

You’ve seen the periodic table before–probably. To the layperson, it might seem like a very fundamental and unchanging thing; where changing the periodic table is just a changing of our understanding of the world around us. Kind of like the laws of physics as we understand them now. Gravity doesn’t change, it’s just that we learn more about it and that might change our understanding of the laws around it. For the periodic table, that’s not the case, we can make new elements–almost through brute force. So what’s up with that? How do you make a new element; by extension, how are elements made?

Further Reading: A Useful List of the Periodic Table of Elements

How Were The First Elements Made?

So we’re talking about making elements; what do we mean by that? Let’s start with the very first ones. Perhaps, the first one.

Once upon a time (like 14 billion years ago) there was absolutely nothing, not even a universe. Then, there was a really big bang, the Big Bang (duh). For a really, really short time, the universe was too small and too dense for even hydrogen (the first element) to exist. By short time we mean the most minute fractions of a fraction of a second. 

Anyway, after this literal universe-defining explosion, things began to spread out and cool really quickly. That let the first protons and neutrons form, and thus we got atoms and elements. Before then we just had stuff like quarks, antiquarks, and electrons, which is… A lot of physics. They didn’t last very long, being annihilated almost as soon as they were created, but eventually things cooled and got stable enough for the first atoms to come around.

Further Reading: What Are Quarks? Why Do they Come in Flavors?

Given that hydrogen is basically just a proton and an electron, it’s no surprise that it formed first. Protons paired with neutrons, and those pairs come together to make a 2-proton-2-neutron foursome. What’s that give us? Helium. No surprise that hydrogen makes up over 73% of matter in the universe, with helium taking around another 25%. How’d they pair up? Well we’re still in the very early fractions of a second of the universe. Also known as “it’s really hot.” When hot, molecules move around a lot, and when the hotter it is the more they move (and the faster they move. It’s why things melt and eventually vaporize when heated up. 

So all this stuff, in all this heat, was zipping around and eventually some of them were bound to collide. Bam, slam, welcome to the jam; we’ve got a new pair. 

Oh sidebar, baryonic matter is specifically what hydrogen makes up like 73% of. Baryonic matter is the stuff that makes everything you know and love (or hate), but it’s projected that it only makes up less than 5% of the universe. The rest is dark energy and dark matter, forces at play we (like as a human race) are probably only in the early stages of grasping.

The Rest of Them

So one of the takeaways from the formation of hydrogen and helium you hopefully took away was that stuff combines when it smashes into other stuff. Especially when it’s hot. 

Turns out, that’s how the rest of the periodic table works. A lot of other elements you can credit to stars like our Sun. Without getting too far into how stars work, their cores are essentially powered by nuclear fusion. Picking the words apart, that’s fusing the nuclei of atoms, which is how we got helium from hydrogen (2 hydrogen nuclei fused together to make one helium atom). Stars don’t stop at helium though, and they keep fusing heavier and heavier elements as the lighter ones get exhausted. They’ll go up to iron before they’re basically condemned to their death throes. Some stars also explode when they die, which is super hot and can make other new, cool stuff (which isn’t new anymore, but was new the first time it happened. 

What About Us?

Alright, so what about us making a new element? Which we have done before. Elements 95-118 were all produced by us. Elements 1-94 have occurred naturally, though we still have made some synthetically. Technetium, promethium, astatine, neptunium, and plutonium were first discovered because we synthesized them. It wasn’t until later that we realized they also occurred naturally. 

Then how did we do it? We don’t have a mastery of nuclear fusion, something like a fusion reactor for power is still within the realm of science fiction–though someday we’ll probably get there. That’s not to say we haven’t crammed protons into atoms to make new elements. Of course we have, that’s where elements 95-118 come from. We did that through the power of you know, explosions.

Elements 95-100 were produced when we took uranium and shot it full of neutrons. Eventually the uranium nucleus’ extra neutron was converted into a proton and an electron (and some other stuff, like an antineutrino) and thus we get a new element. Atomic numbers are determined by how many protons are in the atom’s nucleus.

Eventually we started shooting the nuclei of atoms at other atoms; shooting helium at einsteinium gave us mendelevium (element 101), and shooting neon at uranium gave us nobelium (102). So on. 

Are We Better than Stars?

Not really, no. Supernovae might be capable of making elements even heavier than we’ve made. There’s just no way of knowing since you can’t go inside a supernova. Maybe we would discover a new element (or like a lot of them) if we could sit inside of an exploding star. It’s just that elements get harder and harder to make as they get heavier. There’s an upper limit to how many protons you can cram into an atom before it just falls apart, though we’re not there yet. 

So really heavy elements just decay and stop existing. They last for fractions of a fraction of a fraction of a second, because the protons in the nucleus of those big atoms just push each other apart. Why? They share the same charge, opposites may attract, but those who are the same push each other apart. 

List of Elements Made Exclusively Through Synthesis (that we know of)

  1. Americium (Am)
  2. Cirium (Cm)
  3. Berkelium (Bk)
  4. Californium (Cf)
  5. Einsteinium (Es)
  6. Fermium (Fm)
  7. Mendelevium (Md)
  8. Nobelium (No)
  9. Lawrencium (Lr)
  10. Rutherfordium (Rf)
  11. Dubnium (Db)
  12. Seaborgium (Sg)
  13. Bohrium (Bh)
  14. Hassium (Hs)
  15. Meitnerium (Mt)
  16. Darmstadtium (Ds)
  17. Roentgenium (Rg)
  18. Copernicium (Cn)
  19. Nihonium (Nh)
  20. Flerovium (Fl)
  21. Moscovium (Mc)
  22. Livermorium (Lv)
  23. Tennessine (Ts)
  24. Oganesson (Og)

Speaking of that time we fused atoms in a bomb, here’s a quiz about atom bombs.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.