Have you ever looked at a periodic table and wondered why some of the elements have unusual symbols, such as Uuh and Uuo? The names of the elements aren’t permanent, and chances are the periodic table you are looking at is already out of date.
These are placeholders ready for when the scientific community decides on what to name these recently discovered elements. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) stated, “elements can be named after a mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, a property, or a scientist”. But it isn’t that simple.
Before any names can be agreed upon and take their place in the periodic table, IUPAC must verify whether the researchers actually discovered the element. This is an extremely long process and so elements that were discovered years ago have only just got their names.
Here is our selection on what inspired the naming of five recently discovered heavy elements, and the background behind them.
Darmstadtium was first made at the Heavy Ion Research Lab in 1994 and the name reflects the place of discovery, like many of the other elements in the periodic table. Like the other heaviest elements, it was actually synthesised. In this case a heavy isotope of lead was crashed into nickel-62, creating four atoms of Darmstadtium. The name was recommended by IUPAC in 2003, but it wasn’t officially approved until 2011.
Roentgenium was also discovered in 1994 at the Heavy Ion Research Lab in Darmstadt, Germany in the cold fusion between nickel ions and bismuth. However, due to lack of evidence for the element at this point the name wasn’t officially approved by IUPAC until 2004. The name honours German scientist Wilhelm Roentgen, who was awarded the first ever Nobel Prize for physics in 1901 for the discovery of X-rays.
Copernicium was first discovered in 1996, another success of the Heavy Ion Research Lab. The name was not officially recognised until 2010 and was proposed in recognition of the achievements of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. The discoverers of the elements said that they chose this name to honour the scientist who “changed our world view” (Copernicus proposed that the planets orbited the sun, discrediting the theory that the Earth is the centre of the Universe).
Flerovium is the first of the two elements to be officially named this year. Being informally reported in 1999 by the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia (using isotopes from the Lawrence Livermore lab). The name honours the Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions where super-heavy elements are synthesized, which in turn was named after physicist Georgiy Flerov who discovered the spontaneous fission of uranium.
Livermorium is the second of the two super-heavy elements officially named this year, and yet it was first created 12 years ago. This name replaces the placeholder name Ununhexium (which had the symbol Uuh). The element’s existence was confirmed in a collaboration between the Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which was the inspiration for the name.