Artist's impression of colliding nuclei.

Nuclei collide at high speeds to make new, superheavy elements.

Image: Mike McRae

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry recently announced new names for two recently discovered elements: flerovium and livermorium.

All elements are made of atoms, which each have a nucleus in their centre. The nucleus can be made of protons (with a positive charge) and neutrons (which have no charge). The number of protons determines the element. For example, every carbon atom has six protons in its nucleus.

The number of protons in an element’s nucleus is its atomic number. The periodic table arranges all the elements in order of increasing atomic number. Elements with a high atomic number are said to be ‘heavy’.

By far the most common element in the Universe is hydrogen. Here on Earth, nitrogen is the most common element in the atmosphere, while oxygen is the most common in the Earth’s crust. Many elements, such as gold, are much rarer.

Quite a few of the elements on the periodic table aren’t found naturally on Earth at all. The heaviest element that occurs naturally on Earth is uranium, which has an atomic number of 92.

Flerovium and livermorium have atomic numbers of 114 and 116, much heavier than uranium. There are more than 20 other elements heavier than uranium on the periodic table. If they don’t occur naturally, where do they come from?

Chemists and physicists can synthesise elements heavier than uranium, by smashing a relatively heavy element together with a lighter one. In the case of flerovium and livermorium, the two elements were curium and calcium. The new elements get their names from laboratories in Russia and the USA where these experiments are carried out.

Elements such as these are highly radioactive. They decay almost immediately into lighter elements, releasing radiation in the process. This means you won’t be able to take a good look at a lump of livermorium or flerovium. They disappear in roughly the blink of an eye!

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