London, Feb 11 (ANI): Scientists have come up with a new technique that could help find an "island" of unusually stable elements by directly measuring the mass of elements heavier than uranium.
The "island" of unusually stable elements that is thought to extend beyond the current end of the periodic table.
Uranium, which contains 92 protons, is the heaviest element known to occur in nature. But researchers have synthesised a number of even heftier elements, with as many as 118 protons.
These extreme atoms are quite short-lived - many fall apart just milliseconds after they are created.
But nuclear theorists suspect that a class of 'super-heavy' atoms, boasting the right combination of protons and neutrons, could have lifetimes of decades or longer.
Elements in this so-called island of stability could act as powerful nuclear fuel for future fission-propelled space missions.
They might also be exhibit useful new chemical properties.
Element 114, for example, has shown hints that it behaves like a gas at room temperature even though it should be a member of the lead family on the periodic table.
But no one knows where the island of stability lies.
Some models predict it is centred on atoms with 114 protons, while others put it near atoms with 120 or 126 protons.
Now, according to a report by New Scientist, a team led by Michael Block of the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany, has demonstrated a direct way of measuring the mass of particles heavier than uranium.
Because mass and energy are equivalent, as described by Einstein's famous equation E = mc2, determining the mass of an atom indicates how strongly its nucleus is bound together.
To make the mass measurement, the team used a device called a Penning trap, which employs electric and magnetic fields to confine atoms.
The trap was used to weigh atoms of nobelium, an element that contains 102 protons, 10 more than uranium.
Like other 'artificial' elements, the nobelium atoms were created by colliding a stream of lighter atoms with a target.
The key advance was finding a way to slow down the nobelium atoms before they entered the trap - a feat the team accomplished by first injecting the atoms into a chamber filled with helium gas.
Measuring the mass of other elements could help theorists begin to differentiate between competing models for the structure of super-heavy nuclei.
"It will give us important experimental evidence that can be used to confront nuclear structure theories," said Walter Loveland of Oregon State University in Corvallis. (ANI)