Above: The four newly-discovered chemical elements, with their temporary names and the flags of the countries where they were discovered (image © Antoine2K, iStockphoto)

If you discovered a new element, what would you name it? Would you name it after your favourite TV character? Your hometown? Yourself? According to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), elements can be named after mythical characters, concepts, minerals, places, element properties, or scientists. However, once a name and symbol have been chosen, they can never be changed. So decide carefully!

Did you know? Atoms of a certain element have the same number of protons but can have different numbers of neutrons. These variants are called isotopes.

Protons, neutrons, and electrons

Elements are the building blocks of chemistry. They make up all of the ordinary matter of the universe. For example, you can find oxygen, the third-most abundant element in the universe, in water (H2O) and many other molecules that living organisms rely on.

Each element has its own atomic number. The atomic number tells you the number of protons in the nucleus. For example, carbon has an atomic number of 6. This means it has 6 protons. Protons have a positive electrical charge and are contained in the nucleus. The nucleus is a dense region located in the center of an atom.

Elements can also contain neutrons and electrons. Neutrons are a type of particle with approximately the same mass as a proton but without any electrical charge. They are also found within the nucleus. In contrast, electrons have a negative electrical charge. Electrons are also much lighter and orbit around the nucleus.

The periodic table

The periodic table of elements is an arrangement of the chemical elements. This table is based on the atomic number, electron configurations, and chemical properties of the elements. The rows of the periodic table are called periods. The columns are called groups.

The modern periodic table contains 7 rows and 18 columns. This design lets you quickly find an element’s symbol, atomic number, and atomic mass. It can also give you information on chemical properties. For example, elements on the left-hand side are generally metals, while elements on the right-hand side are generally non-metals.

The Four New Elements

Element #

Temporary Name, Symbol

113

ununtrium, Uut

115

ununpentium, Uup

117

ununseptium, Uus

118

ununoctium, Uuo

Four new superheavy metals

Now that four new elements have been added, the seventh row of the periodic table is complete. The research groups that discovered elements number 113, 115, 117, and 118 are from Japan, Russia, and the United States. They have a chance to choose permanent names and symbols for the newly discovered elements. But this is a process that may take up to six months!

All four new elements are highly unstable superheavy metals. Heavy elements are those that have an atomic number larger than 92. Superheavy elements usually have atomic numbers larger than 112. Superheavy elements are radioactive and unstable.

Superheavy elements do not occur in nature. The new elements were created in laboratories. Scientists used particle accelerators——machines that propel charged particles to speeds close to the speed of light——to make atoms of two different elements crash into each other. When the nuclei crash together, their nuclei may join together. If the nuclei join, a new element is created. However, even if they do join, these artificially created elements only exist for a fraction of a second before they decay into other elements.

Producing new elements is very difficult. It took seven years after the first two times element 113 was created to do so a third time. The new elements are all decay quickly. This happens because their nuclei are packed with a large number of protons. All these protons have positive charges, that repel each other. This makes the atoms highly unstable. As a result these atoms breakdown and release particles and energy.

Did you know? Uranium is the heaviest naturally-occurring element.

Significance

Why is it important to discover new superheavy elements? The discovery can give scientists a better understanding of how nuclei are held together. It can also give them understand the limits of the periodic table of elements. For example, how many more elements are there to find?

A better understanding of superheavy elements and their behaviour can also help scientists develop safer and more efficient nuclear reactors. Previously discovered heavy elements have been used in various ways. For example, americum has been used in smoke detectors and plutonium has been used in nuclear weapons. Scientists expect that practical applications for the newly discovered elements will be discovered in the future.

Did you know? The first artificial element was created using particle accelerators at the University of California at Berkeley. This element, with atomic number 93, is now known as neptunium.

Although the seventh row of the periodic table of elements is now complete, the table itself may not be fully complete. Some scientists feel there are no limits to the periodic table. No one is sure how long it will take, but it is certainly possible for new elements to be discovered in the future. If this is the case, get ready to buy new textbooks because the periodic table of elements could have a whole new, eighth row!

Confirmation of four new elements completes seventh row of periodic table (2016)
E. Stoye, Royal Society of Chemistry: ChemistryWorld

Discovery and Assignment of Elements with Atomic Numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118 (2016)
International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry

How many more chemical elements are there for us to find? (2016)
P. Ball, BBC Earth

The Newcomers to the Periodic Table (2016)
M. Koren, The Atlantic

Discovery of Elements 113 and 115
P. Ball, The Royal Society of Chemistry: ChemistryWorld

Magazine article on the naming of chemical elements:

The periodic table name game (2016)
P. Ball, The Royal Society of Chemistry: ChemistryWorld

Christal Zhou

I'm from Toronto, ON and I'm currently completing my fourth year of my undergraduate degree in Chemical Biology at McMaster University. After I graduate, I would like to pursue a career in medicine, particularly family medicine. I've been completing research on polymer microspheres, nanofibers and their interactions with fibroblastic cells at McMaster University since the summer of 2013. I've just started my volunteering at Let's Talk Science in 2015 and I love inspiring other people to love science! Some of my hobbies including painting, taking care of my plants (mainly succulents), and shopping.

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