New element to be called Tennessine; recognizes work of ORNL, as well as UT and Vandy

Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which played a key role in the 2010 discovery and later confirmation of a series of new super-heavy elements, has been rewarded with the naming of one of the elements “Tennessine.”element

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry announced the “provisional recommendation” that Element 117 be called Tennessine. Its symbol on the periodic table will be Ts. The provisional name will now undergo a five-month public review before final approval.

The name also recognizes the contributions of the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University. The discovery team for three of the elements included 72 scientists from 16 institutions around the world.

The international body also announced the proposed names and symbols for Elements 113, 115 and 118.

The development of unique super-heavy elements was aided by production of source materials — such as berkelium-249 — at ORNL’s High Flux Isotope Reactor. The target material was synthesized at the lab’s Radiochemical Engineering Development Center and then shipped to a research facility in Dubna, Russia, where the actual experiment that produced Element 117 took place a few years ago.

Jim Roberto, ORNL’s director of science and technology partnerships, said the announcement was exciting, but he cautioned that’s the naming of new elements to the periodic table is not yet official.

“We’ve kind of midway through that process now,” Roberto said Wednesday.

Roberto said each of the institutions involved with the discovery team participated in a conference call earlier to discuss the possible names for the new elements. “It was a very collegial process,” he said.

The ORNL official said the lab was involved in experiments for three of four new elements, but was particularly tied to development of Element 117. Over an 18-month period, ORNL’s produced and purified the target material (berkelium) that was used in an accelerator experiment at Russia’s Joint Institute for Nuclear Research to produce the new element.

“We could not have done this experiment in the U.S.,” Roberto said. “The Russians could not have done this without us. It was a wonderful collaboration.”

Not only did the Oak Ridge lab produce the target material for experiments, but ORNL scientists also traveled to Russia to work with the international team on detector technologies and other aspects of the work.

Discovery of new super-heavy elements, such as Tennessine, may someday lead to development of new and important materials.

“These experiments and discoveries open new frontiers of chemistry,” Roberto said in a statement.

If approved by an international council, Tennessine will be only the second element to be named for a U.S. state. Californium is the other.

ORNL was also involved in experiments for two other new elements — 115 (to be called “Moscovian” in recognition of Moscow, Russia) and 118 (to be called Oganesson, recognizing Professor Yuri Oganessian as the scientific leader  of the project).

The fourth new element to be given a provisional name on Wednesday was Element 113, which was discovered by a team in Japan. It will be called nihonium (nihon translates in Japanese to “Land of the Rising Sun”).

In a telephone interview, Roberto said establishment of new super-heavy elements like Tennessine is important to scientists because it provides the strongest evidence yet of the concept known as the “island of stability.”

According to ORNL, that concept was originally proposed in the 1960s and “predicts increased stability for superheavy nuclei at higher neutron and proton numbers.” The nuclei produced in the experiments are consistent with the island of stability, the lab said.

“It puts us on the shores of the island,” Roberto said, noting the future prospects are promising.

“We may be able to make materials that have never been produced before, with new properties,” he said. “This is a journey, and this is probably the most important step on that journey (to date).”

ORNL photo: Lab worker work with highly purified berkelium, which was used as target to produce Element 117.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.