Discovered in 2010, the most recent element to be found was officially named towards the end of last year. Tennessine, an artificial chemical element with atomic number 117 and the symbol Ts, initially held the name ununseptium – quite literally, the Latin for “one-one-seven”. I love originality. Naturally, of course, humans like easier names, and in November 2016, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry approved naming the element after the state of Tennessee, within which the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where the element was discovered, resides. And here I was, hoping for a Halo reference, yet it seems scientists aren’t as nerdy as I’d like.
Turns out, nomenclature for elements past 100 have been mired with controversy. In the 1960s, in the midst of the Cold War, a war was occurring between American and Soviet scientists. Known now as the Transfermium wars, it considered every element after Fermium – element 100 – which resolved in 1997. The difficulties originated within the discoveries of elements 104, 105 and 106, where both a Russian and American laboratory claimed to have discovered them, proceeded to name them, and refused to recognise the name given to the element by the other group of scientists. At the time, the Soviets knew element 104, now known as rutherfordium, had been dubbed kurchatovium, and 105, known now as hahnium was known as nielsborhium – after Niels Bohr. You know, the other guy who created the Rutherford-Bohr model of atomic construction. I’m glad that Bohr managed to get recognition two more elements down the line, with bohrium, element 107, but it just goes to show how bitter the Cold War was between the Americans and Soviets that they couldn’t decide on the names of some bloody elements.
“Nomenclature for elements past 100 have been mired with controversy”
I’ll now be moving away from the political struggles of science, as I could be here forever with that. Tennessine is the second heaviest element within the periodic table, with only element 118, oganesson, surpassing it in this regard – but element 117 was almost discovered earlier. At the end of 2004, a Russian team of scientists from the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research proposed to work with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in order to synthesize element 117. However, the cost of producing incredibly rare berkelium – which, at the time, was only produced at Oak Ridge – hampered progress, and instead, scientists shifted their interests towards the earlier, and more financially feasible, creation of oganesson.
Tennessine is a super-heavy element, which is created artificially via a particle accelerator. Within these, certain atoms and ions are forced to collide with one another, creating completely new elements in the process. For example, californium-249 and carbon-12 bombarded together created rutherfordium-261. In the case of tennessine, scientists bombarded berkelium-249 atoms with calcium-48 ions in order to produce this short-lived element, which eventually came to be known as element 117. Unfortunately, only a handful of atoms have ever been made using this method, and therefore tennessine has no use outside of scientific research. The half-life of its most stable isotope, tennessine-294, is around 80 milliseconds, and quickly decays into moscovium-290. Until a stable isotope is found, the properties of tennessine will remain largely unknown. Despite this, finding a stable isotope is unlikely, as the other superheavy elements, from rutherfordium onwards, tend to only have half-life of between a few milliseconds and a few minutes at their most stable.
As it stands, the final naming process, whilst arduous, is incredibly important to the scientists who discover the element – hence an intellectual war between scientific groups in the 20th century – but even with tennessine, there were difficulties. Had they followed Mendeleev’s nomenclature, we’d have ‘eka-astatine’. Had they followed the strict guidelines of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry – who recommend and accept element names – we’d have had something ending in ‘-ium’ – and in all honesty, neither ‘tennessium’ or ‘eka-astatium’ have the same ring. It seems that waiting for an update in guidelines – which occurred in 2016, was the best choice, which led to the recommendation of ‘-ine’ as a suffix for all elements. Now, we’re just going to have to wait until 119 and 120 are discovered so that we’ve got a nice easy number of elements and some more naming wars for them.