After 69 years of slow process, chemists have successfully uncovered the basic properties of einsteinium, the obscure 99th element, which is one of the heaviest elements on the periodic table.
This element was first created in the combustion of a hydrogen bomb on the South Pacific island of Elugelab in 1952 and had preserved its shroud of mystery for some time due to the fact that it doesn't naturally occur and is unstable to the degree that it's difficult to gather enough of it to be actually able to study it. Its complex nature doesn't end there since it's hard to separate from other elements, highly radioactive, and it decays rapidly.
The study, published in the journal Nature, uncovering einsteinium's basic chemical properties brings chemists one step closer to discovering the "island of stability," where some of the strongest elements that could act as powerful nuclear fuel for future fission-propelled space missions are thought to be in.
Uncovering the secrets of einsteinium
The study conducted by researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California is the first of its kind since the 1970s. By using a specialized nuclear reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which is one of the rare places where einsteinium can be made, they were able to create a 233-nanogram sample of pure einsteinium.
They had to overcome numerous hardships, and perhaps the most problematic one was einsteinium decaying rapidly and emitting gamma radiation. The researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico helped the team by designing a 3D-printed sample holder that they can put the einsteinium in and protect themselves from the radiation.
Researchers were able to uncover the element's fundamental chemical properties at the end of the experiment. They measured einsteinium's average distance between two bonded atoms, called bond length. This is especially important since it can help scientists predict how einsteinium will interact with other elements.
While it was previously predicted in the past, they proved experimentally that einsteinium's bond length goes against the general trend of the actinides.
Moreover, the scientists saw that einsteinium luminesces more differently than the rest of the actinide series when exposed to light; however, the reason why is still unclear to the researchers.
The study, potentially making the creation of einsteinium easier in the future, also has laid the groundwork for conducting chemistry experiments on extremely small quantities.