A month after making the heaviest element known, scientists at a German laboratory said Wednesday they did it again: An even heavier element flashed into existence Dec. 8 and was gone in an instant.
The researchers at the Heavy Ion Research Center in Darmstadt, near Frankfurt, could produce an even heavier element as early as next year, a spokesman said.The Darmstadt facility produced elements 107, 108 and 109 in the early 1980s. Another decade passed before element 110 was announced Nov. 18 - again by scientists at the Darmstadt center.
On Wednesday, a 13-member team including scientists from Germany, Russia, Slovakia and Finland released an article written for a physics journal announcing element 111.
Until the atomic age, uranium was thought to be the heaviest element, with 92 protons. Hydrogen, the lightest element, has just one proton.
Element 111, which has 111 protons, was made by firing billions of nickel atoms at a target of bismuth in a nuclear accelerator.
The scientists said they saw only three atoms of element 111 form during three weeks of running the experiment.
The new element is so unstable that it existed for only four-thousandths of a second before decaying into lighter elements.
The Darmstadt team credits vastly improved measuring and experimental techniques for its sudden speed in producing elements 110 and 111, said institute spokesman Guenter Siegert.
"We have the best method in the world now," he said.
The next element won't be produced so quickly, Siegert said, because the team has to share the Darmstadt center's atomic accelerator and won't be able to use it again for months.
"Number 112 won't come in January, but it could be in 1995," Siegert said in a telephone interview.
Elements 113 and 114 also are theoretically within reach, he said.