Einsteinium (atomic number 99) is a rare synthetic element named after, you guessed it, Albert Einstein. It's produced from the decay of nuclear elements, and was originally discovered in the fallout from the first hydrogen bomb test on the Marshall Islands. The silvery, paramagnetic metal is highly radioactive, producing about 1000 watts of heat per gram, and only has a half-life of 20.47 days. While scientists have known about its existence, it's been kind of hard study, because you can only get it from a thermonuclear explosion, and you need to act fast once you have it.
But scientists have made a breakthrough in the way they study these kinds of elements, according to a new paper published in the journal Nature. "Understanding the properties of these heavy elements has been restricted by their scarcity and radioactivity," the authors wrote. "This is especially true for einsteinium (Es), the heaviest element on the periodic table that can currently be generated in quantities sufficient to enable classical macroscale studies."
The full paper is paywalled, but Vice summarizes it:
"We now have access to state-of-the-art advanced techniques that weren't there in the past few decades," said Rebecca Abergel, a nuclear engineer at UC Berkeley who co-led the new research, in a call. "Everything came together only recently."
Einsteinium has been experimentally studied before, but previous tests inferred information about the element from the radioactive signatures of small samples. Abergel and her colleagues set out to conduct a spectroscopic analysis that would reveal finer details, such as the bond distance of einsteinium, a property that influences how an element interacts with other atoms and molecules.
"It's a very typical type of information you'd want to get about any element," said Abergel. "It tells us about how an element is going to be behaving when it's surrounded by other atoms and how it's going to form chemical bonds."
The team did face some challenges—including, but not limited to, early COVID-19 shutdowns forcing them to stop gathering to conduct their breakthrough research—but at least they have some knowledge about how Einsteinium and its actinides cousins (the radioactively elements spanning atomic numbers 89 to 103) bond.
Mostly, I just find it remarkable that it took them nearly 70 years to develop the technology that would actually let them study how this element ticks.
Scientists Just Studied a Dangerous Element Discovered in a 50s Nuke Test [Becky Ferreira / Vice]
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