December 28, 2019 0

This Radioactive Element Defies Quantum Theory: Meet Berkelium


For anyone who isn’t a chemist, you’ve
probably always ignored that weird chunk of the periodic table that floats below the main
elements that we have to memorize in school. This chunk, right here.*point to bottom of
screen* And that’s probably because we don’t know a lot about these elements. These are the lanthanoids and actinoids, and
new research is only just starting to shed light on how bizarre these heavy elements
really are, and how little we know about chemistry. All the elements in the periodic table are
organized by increasing atomic number, a number that usually corresponds to atomic mass. Beyond mass, elements are also grouped by
kind and similar properties. Lanthanoids and actinoids are two distinct
groups that are often taken together because they’re both part of the inner transition
series that sits within transition metals. The elements in these two groups are also
structured differently than other elements at the atomic level. Looking specifically at actinoids, they’re
typically soft, silvery metals with that are both dense and malleable. You could cut some of them with a knife! Thorium is like soft steel; when it’s heated
you can roll it into a sheet or pull it into a wire. Actinoids are also lightly paramagnetic, pyrophoric
which means they spontaneously ignite with exposure to air, and, with the exception of
actinium, have multiple crystalline phases. But, their most notable defining characteristic
is that they’re all radioactive. And it gets stranger. Only four known actinoids occur naturally
on Earth. The others are created in a lab. But no matter where they come from, actinoids
are the heaviest and least understood elements we know. Among these synthetic elements is berkelium,
and it’s defying quantum mechanics. Berkelium was discovered by scientists at,
you guessed it, Berkeley, in 1949. It’s an actinoid so we know it’s radioactive,
but that’s almost everything we know about it. The element is so difficult and expensive
to make that there’s almost none in existence — there’s less than a gram in the world
and there’s only one isotope chemists can work with, 249Bk, and it decays quickly – just
a half-life of 320 days. But that’s still SOME! And Department of Energy recently gave scientists
13 milligrams to work with. Unlike the lighter elements at the top of
the periodic table, quantum mechanics can’t explain what’s going on with the electrons
at the heart of this element. But scientists think it might have something
to do with Einstein’s theory of relativity. The electrons in berklium seem to follow his
prediction that says as objects move faster, they get heavier
The electrons move around the element’s charged nucleus at a significant fraction
of the speed of light, and this is what’s making the element heavy and behave in ways
that can’t be explained by quantum theory. Which is leading researchers to wonder how
they can either make the reaction stronger or shut it down altogether. Until now, berkelium has mainly been used
to make new elements like tennessine, so this is one of the first dedicated experiments
scientists have done to learn about the element itself. And really, it’s teaching us that the element
is hard to understand. Berkelium is making theories about chemistry
bend and break, but it’s all in the name of understanding the full table of our elements
and the chemistry that comes with them. Photo galleries, blogs, e-commerce — those
are elements too! But instead of for nature, they’re for your
own website! Want to
know more about crazy states of matter, we dug so deep into it my brain hurt on SeekerPlus
— check it! One last thing, our Periodic Table was created
by Dmitri Mendeleev, he wrote the elements on cards and practiced rearranging them until
it hit him to put them in order of relative atomic mass, that was in 1869 — when there
were only 63 known.

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