First superheavy element found in nature


The hunt for superheavy elements has focused banging various heavy nuclei together and hoping they’ll stick. In this way, physicists have extended the periodic table by manufacturing elements 111, 112, 114, 116 and 118, albeit for vanishingly small instants. Although none of these elements is particularly long lived, they don’t have progressively shorter lives and this is taken as evidence that islands of nuclear stability exist out there and that someday we’ll find stable superheavy elements.

But if these superheavy nuclei are stable, why don’t we find them already on Earth? Turns out we do; they’ve been here all along. The news today is that a group led by Amnon Marinov at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has found the first naturally occuring superheavy nuclei by sifting through a large pile of the heavy metal thorium.

What they did was fire one thorium nucleus after another through a mass spectrometer to see how heavy each was. Thorium has an atomic number of 90 and occurs mainly in two isotopes with atomic weights of 230 and 232. All these showed up in the measurements along with a various molecular oxides and hydrides that form for technical reasons.

But something else showed up too. An element with a weight of 292 and an atomic number of around 122. That’s an extraordinary claim and quite rightly the team has been diligent in attempting to exclude alternative explanations such as th epresence of exotic molecules formed from impurities in the thorium sample or from the hydrocarbon in oil used in the vacuum pumping equipment). But these have all been ruled out, say Marinov and his buddies.

What they’re left with is the discovery of the first superheavy element, probably number 122.

What do we know about 122? Marinov and co say it has a half life in excess of 100 million years and occurs with an abundance of between 1 and 10 x10^-12, relative to thorium, which is a fairly common element (about as abundant as lead).

Theorists have mapped out the superheavy periodic table and 122 would be a member of the superheavy actinide group. It even has a name: eka-thorium or unbibium. Welcome to our world!

This may well open the flood gates to other similar discoveries. Uranium is the obvious next place to look for superheavy actinides. I’d bet good money that Marinov and his pals are eyeballing the stuff as I write.

Ref: Evidence for a Long-lived superheavy Nucleus with Atomic Mass Number A = 292 and Atomic Number Z @ 122 in Natural Th

67 Responses to “First superheavy element found in nature”

  1. Mathieu Bouchard says:

    it’s not an actinide. Actinides go up to 103, and all of them have been discovered a long time ago. This is the first element to fall in the 8th period. It falls in the 3rd special series, where the 2nd is actinides, so they could be called eka-actinides. However, every two periods the pattern of the table expands with one more subseries of size 2, 6, 10, 14, … the next one is 18. So presumably the eka-actinides have 32 elements but I wouldn’t know where the new pattern of 18 goes within it (or outside of it). If the name eka-thorium is serious then they already know that the pattern of 18 starts after 122 because else eka-thorium wouldn’t be just one cell down from thorium in the table.

  2. [...] Primer elemento superpesado hallado en la naturaleza [ENG] por Kartoffel hace pocos segundos [...]

  3. Richard Feynman had some interesting comments about element 137.

    It looks like the number of natural elements in nature cannot exceed element 137, because this is the element where the outermost electrons have difficulty due to restrictions imposed by the speed of light.

    So it becomes an interesting question for other elements approaching this relativistic restriction.

  4. Ammaar Esmailjee says:

    Its actually part of the superactinide group (theoretical) that would contain the as of yet undiscovered elements 121 – 153, proposed by Seaborg.

  5. Sven says:

    I’m withholding belief until this has been independently confirmed.

    Bear in mind that Uranium (Z=92) is the previously heaviest-known naturally occuring element. That’s quite a bit far down.

    This may be a measurement error. In particular, I’m sceptical of their calibration method of using UArO and ThArO. Argon compounds are not typically stable, and much less so if they’re being ionized in a hot plasma.

    Still interesting though.

  6. [...] the physics arXiv blog: First superheavy element found in nature The hunt for superheavy elements has focused banging various heavy nuclei together and hoping [...]

  7. Eric Smith says:

    “Uranium (Z=92) is the previously heaviest-known naturally occuring element”

    Surely some Np238 and Pu239 occurred naturally at Oklo 1.5 billion years ago, since they are common byproducts of uranium fission.

  8. SHE devil says:

    Before the hype gets out of hand, I would remind everyone that judging by the comments, this “manuscript” has not yet been peer reviewed. Evidence is only presented for “something” with a mass of 292. No real evidence to support a proton number of 122 is presented. Even the blog article says “ atomic number of around 122.”! One would need direct evidence of the proton number to claim discovery, and further experimental confirmation.

    The conclusions are on a very weak footing, as is the deduction of the half-life. The discussion that the UNOBSERVED long -lived isomer is a high-spin super- or hyper-deformed state is simply wild speculation.

    This type of speculation is damaging to the whole field of study of superheavy elements.

  9. H. Peter Anvin says:

    Pu-244 from the birth of the solar system have been isolated in nature, although in extremely small quantities.

  10. [...] means it’s a “proper” element, that any of us might bump into. The detail is here. It doesn’t seem to have been widely reported yet, but I really hope it’s [...]

  11. tadchem says:

    The atomic weight seems a bit light for Z = 122, but about right for Z = 118. #122 would share bulk chemistry with thorium and so would presumably separate from the source material with it.

  12. bRANDON says:

    And I was just reading about Sunspots!

  13. Eric Scerri says:

    An interesting point. I have often wondered why it took a long time for chemists to realize that the elements Ac, Th, Pa, U etc. formed a second f block rather than behaving as a transition series as was believed for many years.

    Admittedly the properties of these elements bear some striking similarities to La, Hf, Ta and W but on theoretical grounds, i.e. the doubling of successive periods, it should not have been such a stretch to realize that they were not transition elements.

    Why did chemistry count more than arguments from quantum mechanics in this instance? I tried to ask Seaborg this question a few years before he passed but he did not really respond to it.

    And on a related point, why is it that the very first period (H and He) does not repeat as all others do? In fact there are tables where it does such as the left-step table and the table I recently proposed in Journal of Chemical Education, 85, 585-589, 2008. Please also see my article in the Jan-Feb issue of American Scientist for another new periodic table in which I claim to settle the position of H and He without recourse to electronic configurations which in these cases is ambiguous.

    eric scerri

    The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance, by Eric Scerri, Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Named as “Outstanding Academic Book for 2007″ by Choice Library Magazine.

    Eric Scerri’s new book is a most appropriate work to mark the centenary of the death of Dimitri Mendeleev. The title—The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance—gives a fair idea of the book’s contents, and the author’s approach and perspective are captured by his statement that he is concentrating on “the fundamental scientific and philosophical ideas that underpinned the evolution of the system.” This, then, is a book about scientific ideas. Scerri does provide brief biographical sketches of each of his scientific protagonists, but biographical, social and cultural context rarely intrude into the narrative. Seymour Mauskopf in American Scientist.

    “Eric Scerri is something of a rara avis. Scerri’s philosophical orientation enriches the text by raising a number of thought-provoking issues…The book under review here is clearly and engaging written and meticulously researched with 42 pages of notes.”– Journal of Chemical Education

    “The quality is not merely skin deep, there is a real scholarship inside…I would have been proud to have written this book rather than just contributing one image.”– Education in Chemistry

    ”This is undoubtedly a book that every practicing chemist and chemistry educator should read because of it’s far-reaching implications for understanding the nature of the periodic law and the challenges it presents to contemporary portrayals of the Periodic Table.”– Newsletter of International History, Philosophy and Science Teaching Group

    “The Peridic Table:Its Story and its Significance should be of great interest and value to chemists and particularly to those chemists who teach about what makes up us, our world, and our science.”– Journal of Chemical Education

    “It is an extremely rare occurrence to have the privilege of reviewing a book that is truly the definitive work in its field: The Periodic Table by Scerri is such a book.”– Rayner Canham, Foundations of Chemistry.

  14. Chuck says:

    It’s a wonder we made it out of the stone age with all you cynics. If it is possible this exists then why not let it ride until the proof has arrived or not.

  15. Eric Scerri says:

    sorry but I need to make a correction to my previous posting.

    In the classic Janet left-step table the first period of 2 elements repeats. See chapter 10 of my book for example.

    In my J. Chem. Ed paper there is just one initial period of 4 elements.

    In the Am. Sci article there are 2 periods of 8, followed by 2 periods of 18 and so on. The anomalous non-repeating period of 2 is absorbed into the first period of 8.

    The motivation for these papers is the ‘correct’ placement of H and He and not so much this question of the anomalous length of period 1.

    eric scerri

  16. mor price says:

    Okay! Now, for the average guy out there who may not be chemistry educator, just what does all this mean in simple practical terms. What value and effect will it have in the world that I live in?

  17. mor price says:

    Okay! Now, for the average guy out there who may not be chemistry educator, just what does all this mean in simple practical terms. What value and effect will it have in the world that I live in? I’m sorry, but I don’t fully understand the significants of this discovery.
    Please explain in simple terms.

  18. Marty Freud says:

    Does this mean a bigger and better “Bomb”?

  19. bert sharoescabar says:

    is dat der sumtin i can cook with on my grill? possum crits and racoon tougue sounds reeaaally good right now..
    jesus saves
    im out

  20. doushbag mcgee says:

    The first superheavy element was found long ago in my shorts, wanna see?

  21. [...] by taoist in Cool Stuff, Science and Technology. trackback Today’s science news includes a possible discovery of a superheavy, and surprisingly stable element – that can be found in nature. It has an element number of 122, a weight of 292, and a half life of [...]

  22. gohome liberals says:

    mor price- You’ll never get a straight answer, all these people can do is theorise on charts and graphs they memorized from a textbook. They are critical because it makes them feel smarter. But to actually take all their useless book-smarts and via common sense relate it to every day life? HA! These people can recite verbatim the instructions on how to change a flat tire, but they could not change that flat tire if their life depended on it. Don’t forget, “educated” people were critical of Einstein, Hawking, and other greats when they came out with many of their theories. There is a premium on revelations in the market place of ideas and everyone wants to be first.

  23. Geoff says:

    This is interesting. And, yes it seems to be highly speculative. I’m not a chemist. But, I still take offense at the Eric Scerri masturbatory posting of his own work. Dear Eric, I will not read your book–I don’t care about your book. Why don’t you find another way to promote your book?

    My great-great-grandfather was a signer on the Periodic Table of the Elements, and was knighted by the Queen of England for his work in proving the atomic weights on the Periodic chart. Do you want to read my book now? I’m sure it will be as enlightening as yours.

  24. a liberal that can change flat tires says:

    Well, instead of making fun of all that you should ask serious questions, e.g. like mor price. The significance is the following: physicists have a theory that explains about the formation of various elements. One can e.g. predicted how heavy they are, if the are stable or will decay and also e.g. if the are fissile. The latter is relevant for e.g. nuclear energy and – unfortunately – nuclear weapons.

    Now, this theory has since looong time ago made a prediction (which good theories should do) and this is that there should be superheavy elements i.e. elements that are not only heavier than lead with a mass of 208 (which means it has a mass of about 208 times the mass of hydrogen which is about 12 times the mass of a water molecule) but heavier than uranium (mass 238) which is the heaviest element found naturally. Heavier elements have so far (!) only been made artificial (be intelligently design experiments). So if this discovery of superheavy elements with a mass of 292 is confirmed (which is a requirement for good science) this is a great success for nuclear theory.

    Again: nuclear theory is important for many more aspects in life than you might think of: not only nuclear energy (and weapons) but also medicine (e.g. cancer treatment) or electronics. You get a so called dose of radiation due to nuclear interactions due to cosmic radiation each time you fly. It is for medical reasons and protections reasons important to know how large this dose is.
    I hope this answers the question well enough.

    Finally: this shows how good theory works: it makes predictions about reality and when you find the predicted stuff it confirms the theory. If you don’t find it it means something is wrong with the theory and we need a better one. People that believe in some written old book as the only source of knowledge will never be able to make any progress in, e.g, cancer treatment.

  25. [...] For the first time, a super-heavy element (in this case #122, unbibium) has been found in nature. [...]

  26. [...] Note 2: Link to paper:Evidence for a long-lived superheavy nucleus with atomic mass number A=292 and atomic number Z=~122 in natural Th Note 3: First coverage of claim was from The Physics ArXiv Blog: First superheavy element found in nature [...]

  27. Bob Lazar says:

    Its really element 115.

  28. Dan Brown says:

    Neat! This came up just in time for my basic science class to study as they study the nucleus.

    One thing though. “a half life in excess of 100 million years”… It seems to me it would be a lot more than that. Next, if no, if there is a parent nuclide, what would it be?

  29. Brad says:

    The benefits of science are not always seen. Look at the honey comb. Humans saw it for years, and never guessed that it’s design made the structure much stronger, and allowed for more space than a square.

    Same with this science, right now it means nothing, but it is one more piece of the puzzle for some other science, that will directly effect humans.

  30. #112 is the largest ‘confirmed’ element (even though IUPAC lists claims as ‘official’. I knew Glenn Seaborg and the Transuranium people (Al Ghiroso and Darleane Hoffmann) and this type of thing is nothing new! It was the Soviets for years that wopuldn’t release any of the evidence just the claims! #114 AND #118 SHOULD BE THE STABLE POINTS… So to reach the #122 and be stable?
    You have to look at he c`hart of the nuclides NOT the periodic Table for the magic numbers… I find this hard to believe (although would very much want to believe it!)

  31. Also Uranium is NOT the largest naturally occuring element…plutonium’s spectrum has been found in stars many years ago…
    So uranium is the largest naturally occurring detectable ‘remaining’ element in the earth

  32. Jake says:

    “a half life in excess of 100 million years”

    That claim obviously has no basis whatsoever. Purely speculation.

    And for all you people who are ragging on the critics:

    That’s what science is all about! If we blindly believed everything we heard it would be RELIGION. Critism is necessary and part of the scientific method. Nothing would ever be prooved wrong (there are just as many theories that have been proven wrong as there are that have been proven true) if it weren’t for critism.

    I can’t believe you people are actually mad that others are skeptical! That’s what keeps science true!

    On the contrary, we never would have made it out of the stoneage if we stuck to blind beliefs and never questioned the validity of anything.

  33. Maybe this element should be called odinium.

  34. frogmor says:

    I am quite impressed with all the big brains that are able to digest and critique the new “discovery”! Unfortunately, it looks like none of you are able to look beyond the second page! Postulate and ponder upon this: 1)Energy production and consumption is one of the foremost topics on everyone’s mind. 2)Fission material is blocked related to amount of waste product porduced with limited space/funding to house or destroy said waste product. 3)Replacing “lower” fission material with the proposed “superheavy/superstable” material can become a definitive solution for energy needs. Possibly the projects for smaller portable fission generators may now be possible…. Ye of little vision… I pity thee…

  35. Oasthad says:

    Those who are skeptical of your skepticism are themselves no more than skeptics…hypocritical ones at that.

  36. Allright! says:

    More Nukes! More Nukes!

  37. Al Einstein says:

    Element 115, right on, Bob Lazar. Anyone who has done reverse engineering of extraterrestial spacecraft at S-4 in area 51 like you have knows that. Methinks it requires a much larger galaxy than ours for these elements to occur “naturally”.

  38. Stevansky says:

    “That’s what science is all about! If we blindly believed everything we heard it would be RELIGION.”

    Unfortunately some aspects of science have become just that. Take Darwinism for instance. The “evidence” supporting it is quite sparse compared to the arguments supporting the heavier elements. There are many in the scientific community who having openly questioned this theory have been figuratively burned at the stake. Loss of tenure, “persona non grata” at various institutions and professional associations, considered lepers by academia.

    Seems the grand inquisitors of Darwinism take no criticism or prisoners.

  39. Jake says:

    Why do people think these heavy elements could somehow be good candidates for fission? Is that just what the average person thinks when they hear “element” or is there some kind of basis for this?

    Just because it has a large nucleus and is relatively stable doesn’t mean anything. I don’t consider U or Pu “stable” anyway.

  40. an experimental nuclear physicist that can change flat tyres says:

    gohome liberals:
    Criticism is a necessary part of the scientific process, not just a way of inflating your ego. Experimental scientists would not only change your tyres but come up with a better and more efficient way of doing it. They could also spot a clear case of overstating the conclusions based on one single observation, which is what this paper does.

  41. Jamo says:

    Could a nucleus of 122 simply be an odd atom of 61-61 bound together, like O2 is normally?

    I’m sceptical (skeptical?). It just seems strange that no one has attempted this very simple experiment before and obtained this very dramatic result.

  42. Jamo says:

    Or 90 and 32, or whatever…

  43. BM says:

    Please note that this is author Amnon Marinov’s fifth claim of discovering a long-lived superheavy element. He claims to have seen a multi-day Z=115 in 1977, long-lived Z=111 in 2007 (two isotopes), and long-lived 210Th and 211Th in 2004. None of these claims were accepted by the community or confirmed by subsequent experiments.

  44. pete says:

    You mean he has a track record of unsubstantiated claims? Why would you look up something like that? How could that possibly be relevant? Certainly no one would have simply read these claims and published them as established facts. That would be as irresponsible and unproductive as publishing unsubstantiated claims that the world is getting radically warmer and concluding that the source of the effect is man-made ‘Global Warming’ despite a lack of any actual evidence. Oh wait, you get the Nobel Prize for that…nevermind.

  45. [...] a claim that a naturally occurring superheavy element has been discovered. With atomic number 122, this will be an amazing if confirmed. In fact if true, this is a [...]

  46. [...] first superheavy element found in [...]

  47. [...] the physics arXiv blog » Blog Archive » First superheavy element found in nature (Element,Physics) [...]

  48. [...] Marinov, the researcher who detected the element, claims it is as abundant in nature as lead. the physics arXiv blog