151 years. This was how long humanity had celebrated the Periodic Table by the Russian chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev. From the 63 elements Mendeleev had identified, today, there are 118.
In 1936, synthetic elements were welcomed into the family of elements, as the University of Palermo’s scientists confirmed Technetium (43). Two years forward, Marguerite Perey discovered Francium (87), starting its residence on the Periodic Table but also ending the discovery of new elements in nature.
Technetium is one of many elements synthesized in the laboratory before being found in nature. However, as the atoms get more massive, they become unstable and spontaneously react to radioactive elements that can only be obtained between the walls of an institution. They decompose so rapidly that they may break down in tiny fractions of a second.
Nature and the laboratory have a boundary sliced through by Plutonium (94). This most massive element can be found in the Earth’s crust that is stable enough for such a setting in various isotope forms. Above Plutonium are elements 95 and 96, which are Americium & Curium, respectively. These were both created in 1944, opening the realm of elements that can only exist in the laboratory, experiments, or nuclear accidents.
Today, the scientists’ job to study more about novel elements has become increasingly difficult. But through innovation and technology, ununtrium, ununpentium, ununseptium, and ununoctium have earned their permanent spot in the Periodic Table and completed the seventh row. They were named Nihonium, Moscovium, Tennessine, and Oganesson, respectively, in 2015.
So, it seems that the Periodic Table’s now completed. Well, not exactly! Just because the Periodic Table appears to look complete, it doesn’t mean that another row (or even two more) couldn’t be added.
Elliot Quincy Adams, is the first person to propose that humans can’t just make bigger and heavier atoms. In 1977, he predicted the impossibility of having an element that could have an atomic weight heavier than 256. Although this was proven to not be true, this motivated many others to question the limits of element existence.
Richard Feyman, a renowned physicist, also predicted an end to the Periodic Table. He calculated that an atom with more than 137 protons would violate special relativity. Atoms of this size would require electrons that would stabilize much positive charge. However, more protons mean electrons would do more force-pulling inwards and towards the nucleus. This makes the electrons move faster, so fast that Feyman was able to conclude that an atom with 137 protons would be moving in speeds more exceptional than that of the speed of light. This is impossible; thus, elements could not be of more than 137 protons.
However, this is only true if the nucleus was like a single point at the center of the atom. It takes place for small nuclei but does not work for the larger masses like that of an atom with 137 protons. It made physicists and chemists joke that if ever an element with 137 protons would be discovered, they would name it “Feymanium” for the humor in irony.
When calculations were repeated to work for atoms that don’t have nuclei at a single point in the center, the maximum number of protons gets pushed forward to 173. When an atom exceeds this number, it appears that electrons are likely to necessitate a speed faster than light. So, the element 173 may be the last.
Take note: Elements become more unstable as they increase in the number of protons or “go up in number.” This is what makes it more difficult for chemists, researchers, and physicist to synthesize elements in the laboratory as their atomic number increases. Like mentioned earlier, these newer elements could only exist for a fraction of a second before they decay.
It may come to the point that it would be useless to pursue the synthesis of newer elements as they do not last long enough for acquiring any detail. How much more unproductive it may be, to find its purpose?
But, this is not a reason to no longer pursue knowledge. Research is opening its doors for the idea of “Islands of Stability,” which are sets of more stable than expected elements because of their structure. These elements may last more than a second and may last for days, weeks, and even years. These Islands of Stability may start to exist in elements numbered 120 and up. The answers vary as many physicists and chemists argue on this. But since the tip of the current Periodic Table is at element number 118, humankind is closely approaching the theoretical Islands of Stability.
Nothing is permanent. This also works for the knowledge we have today. Novel ideas are made, and past concepts are being questioned. Whether or not new chemical elements can be discovered depends on what further action is taken to find the answer. There is no limit in seeking answers to our infinite number of questions, but ourselves.