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The newest chemical elements

The symbols and atomic numbers for the chemical elements Nihonium, Moscovium, Ognassen and Tennessine (Dr_Micbrobe, iStockphoto)

STEM in Context

The Newest Elements on the Periodic Table

Christal Zhou

Summary

The periodic table was last updated in 2016 with four new chemical elements. What is a chemical element? What is the atomic structure of the newest chemical elements? How did they get their names?

If you discovered a new element, what would you name it? Would you name it after your favourite TV character? Your hometown? Yourself? The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) sets guidelines on naming chemical elements. They say that 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!

In 2016, four new elements were added to the periodic table of elements. Let’s learn a little bit about these newest elements, and what they were named. But first, let’s learn about what chemical elements are.

What are chemical elements?

Chemical elements are the building blocks of chemistry. They make up all of the  ordinary matter of the universe. For example, oxygen is an element. It is the third-most abundant element in the universe. You can find it 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 an element. For example, carbon has an atomic number of 6. This means it has six 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.

Various ways to describe a carbon atom, including a Lewis structure, periodic table entry and Bohr model
Various ways to describe a carbon atom, including a Lewis structure, periodic table entry and Bohr model (Sources: Let’s Talk Science based on image from K!roman, SVG: Marlus_Gancher via Wikimedia Commons, me [CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikimedia Commons, modification of Ahazard.sciencewriter [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons).

Elements can also contain neutrons and electrons. Neutrons are a type of particle with approximately the same mass as a proton. Unlike protons, neutrons do not have any electrical charge. But like protons, they are found in the nucleus.

Electrons have a negative electrical charge. They are also much smaller and lighter. They orbit around the nucleus.

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.

What is the periodic table?

The periodic table of elements is a table that arranges the chemical elements in a logical way. They are arranged based on their atomic number, electron configurations, and chemical properties. The rows of the periodic table are called periods. The columns are called groups.

Image to help you remember that groups run vertically and periods run horizontally
Here is an image to help you remember that groups run vertically and periods run horizontally (© 2019 Let’s Talk Science).

The periodic table that we use today contains seven periods and 18 groups. This design lets you quickly find an element’s symbol, atomic number, and atomic mass. 

The table can also give you information on chemical properties. For example, elements on the left-hand side of the periodic table are generally metals. The elements on the right-hand side are generally non-metals.

When was the periodic table of elements last updated?

In 2016, four new elements were added to the periodic table. That means the seventh period of the periodic table is complete. 

Those four elements are numbered 113, 115, 117 and 118. The research groups that discovered them were from Japan, Russia, and the United States. Remember how we said elements could be named after a place? Well, three of these elements were named after the places where they were discovered. Their names are Nihonium, Moscovium and Tennessine. The fourth element is named Oganesson. It was named after a Russian nuclear physicist named Yuri Oganessian.

Infographic which provides the atomic numbers, names, symbols and origins of the names for the atomic elements 113, 115, 117 and 118
Infographic which provides the atomic numbers, names, symbols and origins of the names for the atomic elements 113, 115, 117 and 118 (© 2019 Let’s Talk Science).

What are super heavy elements?

All four of the newest elements are highly unstable super heavy metals. Heavy elements are those that have an atomic number larger than 92. Super heavy elements usually have atomic numbers larger than 112. Super heavy elements are also more radioactive and unstable than other elements.

Super heavy elements do not occur in nature. The new elements were created in laboratories. Scientists use machines called particle accelerators to make ions (a charged element) of one element crash into the ions of another element. Ions are charged atoms. When the nuclei crash together, they may join together. If the nuclei join, a new element is created. But these artificially created elements only exist for a fraction of a second before they decay into other elements.

Did you know?

Particle accelerators propel charged particles to speeds close to the speed of light.  

Making superheavy elements (2016) by Chemistry World (5:40 min.).

Producing new elements is very difficult. The new elements all decay quickly. This happens because their nuclei are packed with a large number of protons. Protons are positively charged, so they repel each other. This makes the atoms highly unstable. For example, Nihonium has a half-life of just ten seconds. As the elements decay, they release particles and energy.

Did you know?  

Heavy metals aren't actually heavy at all! The term "heavy metal" refers to the element's high atomic weight (92-102) and high density.

Why were these four elements such a big deal when they were discovered? 

The newest heavy elements are important both scientifically and practically. Scientifically, the discovery can give scientists a better understanding of how nuclei are held together. This could, for example, lead to the development of safer and more efficient nuclear reactors.

Previously discovered heavy elements have also had practical applications. For example, Americium (Am) has been used in smoke detectors. Plutonium (Pu) has been used in nuclear weapons and also to power unmanned space probes. 

Right now, the four newest chemical elements are used only in research. But scientists expect that they will discover practical applications for them in the near future. 

Did you know?

The first artificial heavy 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 period 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. The periodic table of elements could one day have a whole new eighth row. If this happens, it’ll be time for a new periodic table poster in your chemistry classroom!

Have We Found All The Elements? (2016) by Reactions (5:10 min.).

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating
  • Which elements from the periodic table do you use in your everyday life?
  • If you could name a new element, what would you call it and why?
  • What do you think is the most interesting chemical element name? Why?
Connecting and Relating
  • Which elements from the periodic table do you use in your everyday life?
  • If you could name a new element, what would you call it and why?
  • What do you think is the most interesting chemical element name? Why?
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Even though element 113 had been created twice before, it took seven years to create it again. Is creating new elements worth the time and financial investment? Explain.
  • How has the development of new technologies contributed to the discovery of new elements? Explain.
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Even though element 113 had been created twice before, it took seven years to create it again. Is creating new elements worth the time and financial investment? Explain.
  • How has the development of new technologies contributed to the discovery of new elements? Explain.
Exploring Concepts
  • Are there still more elements to be discovered? Explain.
  • What is the process for naming new elements once they have been discovered?
  • What are the benefits of studying super heavy metals? Why would scientists spend time creating them?
Exploring Concepts
  • Are there still more elements to be discovered? Explain.
  • What is the process for naming new elements once they have been discovered?
  • What are the benefits of studying super heavy metals? Why would scientists spend time creating them?
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • How does the periodic table of elements demonstrate that ‘scientific knowledge is tentative and subject to change’?
  • Should scientists be awarded money when they discover a new element? Why or why not?
  • The four elements mentioned in the article were discovered by different groups of scientists who were from Japan, Russia, and the United States. Does this fact align with how you normally think of how scientists work? Explain.
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • How does the periodic table of elements demonstrate that ‘scientific knowledge is tentative and subject to change’?
  • Should scientists be awarded money when they discover a new element? Why or why not?
  • The four elements mentioned in the article were discovered by different groups of scientists who were from Japan, Russia, and the United States. Does this fact align with how you normally think of how scientists work? Explain.
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article supports teaching and learning in Chemistry and Nature of Science. It focuses on the development of the periodic table, the discovery of chemical elements and basic atomic structure. Concepts introduced include atomic number, protons, neutrons, electrons, period, heavy metals and super heavy metals. 
  • To introduce this topic, teachers could lead students in a group discussion, to review the basis of the periodic table - what is it, how it was created, how it exists, why it is important, etc.
  • Alternately, before having students read the article, teachers could have them complete the ‘Before’ section of the Anticipation Guide learning strategy for this article. After reading and viewing, teachers could have students complete the ‘After’ section of the Anticipation Guide. Students could discuss their responses and clarify any questions that they may still have.  Ready-to-use reproducibles for this strategy can be downloaded in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. The Answer Key is available as a [PDF].

  • To follow up, the teacher could lead a group discussion on the discovery of new elements on the periodic table and what this might mean for the future.
  • To conclude, students could complete an Exit Slip to consolidate their understanding of the video and topics discussed. Teachers could collect and review the answers provided to assess the depth of student understanding on this topic. The ready-to-use Exit Slip reproducible for this video can be downloaded in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article supports teaching and learning in Chemistry and Nature of Science. It focuses on the development of the periodic table, the discovery of chemical elements and basic atomic structure. Concepts introduced include atomic number, protons, neutrons, electrons, period, heavy metals and super heavy metals. 
  • To introduce this topic, teachers could lead students in a group discussion, to review the basis of the periodic table - what is it, how it was created, how it exists, why it is important, etc.
  • Alternately, before having students read the article, teachers could have them complete the ‘Before’ section of the Anticipation Guide learning strategy for this article. After reading and viewing, teachers could have students complete the ‘After’ section of the Anticipation Guide. Students could discuss their responses and clarify any questions that they may still have.  Ready-to-use reproducibles for this strategy can be downloaded in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. The Answer Key is available as a [PDF].

  • To follow up, the teacher could lead a group discussion on the discovery of new elements on the periodic table and what this might mean for the future.
  • To conclude, students could complete an Exit Slip to consolidate their understanding of the video and topics discussed. Teachers could collect and review the answers provided to assess the depth of student understanding on this topic. The ready-to-use Exit Slip reproducible for this video can be downloaded in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.

Learn more

Who, What, Why: How do elements get their names? (2016)

Article by BBC News discussing what elements are, and how they get their names.

When will we reach the end of the periodic table? (2016)

Devin Powell from the Smithsonian provides a long but accessible article with interesting infographics

Early attempts at creating the Periodic Table of Elements (2019)

Article from ScienceAlert by Jacinta Bowler show some different kinds of Periodic Tables that have been proposed and used.

Celebrating the International Year of the Periodic Table: Scientists share what it takes to make a superheavy element (2019)

A podcast (31:36 min.) with Kerri Jansen of Chemical & Engineering News covering how new superheavy elements are made, and the history behind the creation of new elements.

References

Ball, P. (n.d.). The periodic table name game. ChemistryWorld.

Helmenstine, A. M. (2018, April 18). What is the most abundant element? ThoughtCo.

International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. (2015, December 20). Discovery and assignment of elements with atomic numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118.

Koren, M. (2016, January 4). The newcomers to the periodic table.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (n.d.). Discovery of elements 113 and 115.

Lenntech. (n.d.). Heavy metals.

Sharp, T. (2017, August 8). What is an atom? Live Science.

Stoll, C. (2017, October 10). Facts about neptunium. Live Science.