The ionisation potentials of the elements in the Periodic Table. Bar size reflects amount of energy required to remove the outermost electron.

Properties of rare superheavy element revealed

The cover story of the latest edition of Nature reveals one of the basic atomic properties of an element that exists for only 27 seconds and can only be produced in a particle accelerator. It is the result of an international collaboration including a Massey University scientist.

Dr Anastasia Borschevsky, an associate member in the Centre for Theoretical Chemistry and Physics, who also works at the Helmholtz Institut Mainz in Germany, is part of the international team which also includes scientists from Japan, Germany, Switzerland and Israel.

The group investigated element 103, lawrencium – a superheavy element with more than 100 electrons. Lawrencium is unstable and does not exist in nature, meaning studies about the element are limited. The scientists produced atoms that existed for about 27 seconds in a particle accelerator.

Using a novel experimental technique developed at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency tandem accelerator in Tokai, Japan, scientists measured the ionisation potential – the amount of energy required to remove the outermost electron of an element. They also did a theoretical calculation of the ionisation potential, done by Massey University together with colleagues from Tel Aviv University, Israel.

They found that very little energy — only 4.96 electron volts — was required to ionise lawrencium and this was almost identical to the calculated value. This is lower than for most of the elements in the Periodic Table. Energies are generally very small. For comparison, the amount of energy a mosquito uses when it flies is about one trillion electron volts.

The research is scientifically important because this is the heaviest element for which the ionisation energy has been measured. It also helps confirm the position of lawrencium within the Periodic Table of Elements and opens the door for understanding the chemical and physical properties of superheavy elements.

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