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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Explained: What is Einsteinium, the mysterious element named after Albert Einstein?

With a new study published in the journal Nature last week, for the first time, researchers have been able to characterise some of the properties of the element.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: February 10, 2021 8:28:40 am
Berkeley has reported some of the properties of element 99 in the periodic table called “Einsteinium”, named after Albert Einstein.

A team of scientists at the Berkeley Lab has reported some of the properties of element 99 in the periodic table called “Einsteinium”, named after Albert Einstein. It was discovered in 1952 in the debris of the first hydrogen bomb (the detonation of a thermonuclear device called “Ivy Mike” in the Pacific Ocean). Since its discovery, scientists have not been able to perform a lot of experiments with it because it is difficult to create and is highly radioactive. Therefore, very little is known about this element.

With this new study published in the journal Nature last week, for the first time researchers have been able to characterise some of the properties of the element.

The discovery of the element

When Ivy Mike was detonated on November 1, 1952, as part of a test at a remote island location called Elugelab on the Eniwetok Atoll in the South Pacific, it produced an explosion that was about 500 times more destructive than the explosion that occurred at Nagasaki. Subsequently, the fallout material from this explosion was sent to Berkeley in California for analysis, which was examined by Gregory Choppin, Stanley Thompson, Albert Ghiorso, and Bernard Harvey, who within a month had discovered and identified over 200 atoms of the new element.

According to a podcast run by Chemistry World, the discovery of the element was not revealed for at least three years and it was first suggested that the element be named after Einstein in the Physical Review in 1955.

What did the researchers find?

The scientists worked with less than 250 nanograms of the artificial element, which was manufactured at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s High Flux Isotope Reactor, which is one of the few places in the world capable of making einsteinium.

Specifically, the team worked with einsteinium-254, one of the more stable isotopes of the element that has a half-life of 276 days. The most common isotope of the element, einsteinium 253 has a half-life of 20 days.

Because of its high radioactivity and short half-life of all einsteinium isotopes, even if the element was present on Earth during its formation, it has most certainly decayed. This is the reason that it cannot be found in nature and needs to be manufactured using very precise and intense processes.

Therefore, so far, the element has been produced in very small quantities and its usage is limited except for the purposes of scientific research. The element is also not visible to the naked eye and after it was discovered, it took over nine years to manufacture enough of it so that it could be seen with the naked eye.

“In part the tiny quantities of Einsteinium that have been made reflect the difficulty of producing it. But it also receives the sad accolade of having no known uses. There really isn’t any reason for making einsteinium, except as a waypoint on the route to producing something else. It’s an element without a role in life,” the Chemical World podcast said.

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For the recent research, using a precise X-ray produced by a particle accelerator, the scientists were able to examine this element to find out how it bonds with atoms. By studying this atomic arrangement, scientists can find out interesting chemical properties of other elements and isotopes that may be useful for nuclear power production and radiopharmaceuticals, Rebecca Aberge who co-led the study was quoted as saying in a release.

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