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Ele-mental Australians

A group of Australian scientists at the Australian National University have helped create a new, super-heavy element.

The new element, Element 117, will be added to the periodic table following research published in the latest Physics Review Letters. This is the culmination of years of work by a multinational team of physicists and chemists, and represents the absolute boundary of what can be achieved with modern science. Working with colleagues at Germany’s GSI laboratory, the team created atoms of element 117, matching the heaviest atoms ever observed, which are 40 per cent heavier than an atom of lead.

It must be stated at the outset that super-heavy atoms such as element 117 are entirely synthetic and cannot be found in nature. They’re made by mashing together the nuclei of smaller atoms that combine to give the right number of protons, leading to the creation of the new element. The chances of successfully forming a single atom of element 117 are very low. This experiment verified the findings of a group of Russian physicist who produced the element in 2010. It cannot be recognised as a new element until it has been recreated by another group of scientists, which is what has now happened. To get an idea of the scale of this endeavour, the researchers had to fire over 1019 (ten billion billion) extremely rare calcium-48 nuclei, with 20 protons and 28 neutrons, at a target made of the even rarer isotope, berkelium-249, having 97 protons.

Can the new element be patented? It’s generally accepted that chemical elements are not patentable, but no-one is very clear as to why this is the case. I would venture that it wouldn’t meet the utility requirement of the patent laws of most countries – in other words, it’s shelf-life is so short that there probably isn’t a use for it.

If you want to learn more about whether isotopes of chemical elements can be patented, then there’s this interesting article on the subject dating back to 1954.

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