The Quest for Stability in Superheavy Elements: A Glimpse from the Stars

by Liam O'Connor
superheavy elements

The pursuit of stable superheavy elements, with estimates pointing to those possessing around 164 protons, continues as scientists delve into the possibility that asteroids could serve as repositories for these elusive atomic structures. Current space endeavors seek to procure and scrutinize asteroid specimens for traces of such elements, possibly reshaping our grasp of atomic theory and the wider universe.

Historically, the discovery of new elements has been a significant scientific ambition, with progress in understanding atomic makeup and nuclear science allowing for the transmutation of elements, once the realm of alchemical aspirations.

In recent years, research teams from countries like the U.S., Germany, and Russia have leveraged sophisticated technology to fuse atomic nuclei, resulting in the creation of novel superheavy elements.

These elements are known for their instability due to the increased number of protons in their nuclei, which typically results in electromagnetic forces overpowering the nuclear forces that bind the nucleus. Presently, the periodic table includes elements with up to 118 protons.

It has been hypothesized that a “magic number” of approximately 164 protons might achieve an equilibrium where nuclear forces counteract electromagnetic repulsion, leading to a hypothetical “island of stability.”

With laboratory synthesis proving challenging, researchers are broadening their search to extraterrestrial sources. Understanding the properties of these elements, such as their mass densities, is a critical aspect of this quest.

Assessing Mass Density

My colleagues and I embarked on estimating the mass density of these superheavy elements, a characteristic pivotal in understanding their nuclear behavior and potential hiding spots.

Our approach entailed modeling these elements as large charged clouds, a technique particularly suitable for sizeable atomic structures, especially metallic ones in a lattice. The validation of our model against known densities allowed us to predict the density of elements within the presumed stability island.

Our conservative calculations suggest that stable superheavy metals with atomic numbers in the vicinity of 164 could have densities ranging from 36 to 68 g/cm³. However, acknowledging the conservative nature of our assumptions, the actual figures could be considerably higher.

The Link Between Asteroids and Dense Elements

The hypothesis that heavy elements like gold were brought to Earth by asteroids lends credibility to the possibility that superheavy elements may have shared a similar fate. However, due to geological processes like tectonic subduction, such elements would likely sink below the Earth’s crust, rendering them inaccessible. Conversely, asteroids might retain these elements.

The most massive known asteroid, dubbed Polyhymnia, exhibits a calculated density that far surpasses that of osmium, the densest naturally occurring element on Earth, although these measurements come with uncertainties due to the logistical challenges of assessing distant celestial bodies.

Astronomical phenomena, such as the merging of binary stars, might generate the necessary conditions for the formation of stable superheavy elements. Subsequently, these elements could remain encapsulated within asteroids for aeons.

Upcoming Prospects

The European Space Agency’s Gaia mission is set to deliver the most detailed 3D celestial map to date, which could reveal asteroids with anomalous densities indicative of superheavy element presence.

Sample retrieval missions, like NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, have already returned material from low-density asteroids, with analyses in their initial phases. While the prospects remain slim, there is a chance these samples contain superheavy elements.

Furthermore, NASA’s Psyche mission is anticipated to collect data from a metallic asteroid, potentially increasing the likelihood of finding superheavy elements. Continuation of such missions promises to deepen our understanding of the cosmos and the evolution of our solar system.

Authored by Johann Rafelski, Physics Professor at the University of Arizona, with contributions from Evan LaForge and Will Price, physics students at the university.

Based on an article from The Conversation, this adaptation offers insights into the original research published in The European Physical Journal Plus.

Citation: LaForge, E., Price, W., & Rafelski, J. (2023). Superheavy elements and ultradense matter. The European Physical Journal Plus, DOI: 10.1140/epjp/s13360-023-04454-8

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about superheavy elements

What are superheavy elements and why are they important?

Superheavy elements are atomic elements with a high number of protons in their nuclei, theorized to have unique stability properties. They are important as they could extend our understanding of the periodic table and offer insights into nuclear physics and cosmic formation.

How might asteroids be connected to superheavy elements?

Asteroids may contain superheavy elements, having potentially delivered these dense materials to Earth, much like they did with other heavy metals. Scientists hypothesize that the stable versions of these elements might still be found in asteroids’ cores.

What is the “island of stability” in nuclear physics?

The “island of stability” refers to a predicted zone in the periodic table where superheavy elements with a certain number of protons (around 164) could exhibit stability due to a balance of nuclear forces, unlike most heavy elements that are unstable.

What are the challenges in detecting superheavy elements?

Detecting superheavy elements is challenging because of their instability and rarity. They are difficult to create and sustain in laboratory settings and are thought to be nearly depleted on Earth’s surface due to geological processes.

How could future space missions help in the study of superheavy elements?

Future space missions could assist by retrieving asteroid samples and returning them to Earth for analysis. Missions like NASA’s OSIRIS-REx and Psyche aim to gather data and samples from asteroids that may contain these elusive elements, offering new research opportunities.

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Mike O'Reilly November 6, 2023 - 5:14 am

great article but theres a typo in the second paragraph, should be “have” not “has” when talking about the elements

Ethan K November 6, 2023 - 11:01 am

the part about the island of stability is fascinating, but how do they even predict that 164 is the magic number, seems a bit random to me

Samantha B. November 6, 2023 - 11:04 am

gotta say, it’s pretty cool to think about what secrets asteroids could be holding onto, never thought about it like that before

Jenna Smith November 6, 2023 - 2:32 pm

really interesting stuff here but I think you could’ve dived a bit deeper into how exactly these elements are created? like in stars or whatnot

Lucy Mendoza November 6, 2023 - 4:24 pm

missed an opportunity to link this to the bigger picture, like how does this affect me or the average person, does it have practical uses?


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