Weight scale for atoms could map 'island of stability'

The mass of an atom heavier than uranium has been measured for the first time (Image: <a href="http://garrisonphoto.org/sxc/">bjearwicke</a>/stock.xchng)Hunting for the universe's heaviest atoms just got a little easier, thanks to a new technique that directly measures the mass of elements heavier than uranium. The method could help find an "island" of unusually stable elements that is thought to extend beyond the current end of the periodic table.

Uranium, which contains 92 protons, is the heaviest element known to occur in nature. But researchers have synthesised a number of even heftier elements, with as many as 118 protons.

These extreme atoms are quite short-lived – many fall apart just milliseconds after they are created. But nuclear theorists suspect that a class of 'super-heavy' atoms, boasting the right combination of protons and neutrons, could have lifetimes of decades or longer (see Hunting the biggest atoms in the universe).

Elements in this so-called island of stability could act as powerful nuclear fuel for future fission-propelled space missions. They might also be exhibit useful new chemical properties. Element 114, for example, has shown hints that it behaves like a gas at room temperature even though it should be a member of the lead family on the periodic table.


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