Dragons lurk at the sides of the map of known elements, atomic giants so delicate & so scarce, they defy easy-study.
One such behemoth has finally given up at least few of its secrets, with chemists managing to gather enough einsteinium to flesh out important details on the mysterious element’s chemistry & ability to make bonds.
For better part of 70 years, isotopes of einsteinium have-proven frustratingly difficult to study. Either they’re way too hard to form or they have a half-life of less-than a year and what precious little is made begins to fall-apart just like sandcastle at high tide.
The element’s behavior is presumed to-follow the patterns of its less robust peers in the actinide series. That much is obvious. But because of its sheer size, strange relativistic effects make it harder to predict how it’ll react in certain chemical processes.
Usually, such confusion is definitely cleared up by simply conducting a run of experiments.
The US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has finally scooped together enough of the things to try to do just that.
More informally mentioned as the Berkeley Lab, the famous institute is already responsible for the discovery of a big chunk of the upper-bounds of the periodic table of elements.
A dozen of them were the work of the nuclear physicist Albert Ghiorso, a life-long Berkeley researcher whose early career saw him develop radiation detectors as a part of Manhattan Project.
In the early 1950s, Ghiorso detected faint traces of two, as yet unidentified radioactive elements in airborne dust collected by planes flying via the aftermath of the first full-scale test of a thermonuclear device.
One of those elements was later dubbed einsteinium, named after the famous German-born theorist himself.
With an atomic mass of 252 and containing a whopping 99 protons, it’s not light weight. As with all transuranic elements, elements heavier than uranium, einsteinium requires some serious physics to produce.
There’s no convenient source or stockpile to dip-into. Cooking up a batch requires shooting smaller relatives, like curium, with a bunch of neutrons in a nuclear reactor, then having tons of patience.
Early efforts in 1960s produced enough to see with the naked eye, weighing in at a minuscule 10 nanograms. Later attempts managed a few better, though mostly leading to impure batches.
This time, researchers came-up with around 200 nanograms of the einsteinium isotope E-254, framed as a part of a complex with a carbon-based molecule called hydroxypyridinone.
Getting this far wasn’t easy, marred by contamination of smaller elements, then the inevitable impact of mid-pandemic shutdown, just the thing to threaten an experiment hooked with a rapidly decaying material.
“It is a remarkable achievement that we were able to work with this little amount of material & do inorganic chemistry,” says researcher Rebecca Abergel.
“It is significant because the more we understand about its chemical behavior, the more we will apply this understanding for the development of new materials or new technologies, not necessarily just with einsteinium, but with the remain of the actinides too, and we can establish trends in the periodic table.”
Subjecting their vanishing pile of chelated E-254 atoms to X-ray absorption tests & photophysical measurements revealed important details on the element’s bond distance, while also demonstrating wavelength-shifting emission behavior not-seen in other actinides.
Einsteinium sits right at the side of what we will achieve using benchwork chemistry. While larger elements exist, their increasing girth puts them-out of reach of current technology’s ability to make enough for analysis.
But the more we learn, heavy atoms like einsteinium, the greater the potential for finding stepping-stones to constructing giants that really lie somewhere-off the map.
“Similar to the newest elements that were discovered in the past 10 years, like tennessine, which used a berkelium target, if you were to be ready to isolate enough pure einsteinium to form a target, you’ll start looking for other elements & get closer to the (theorized) island of stability,” says Abergel.
This research was published in Nature.
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