• SHARE

A team of Japanese scientists has proposed naming atomic element 113 nihonium — after “Nihon,” meaning Japan — with giving it the symbol Nh. And while Kyushu University professor Kosuke Morita, who led the team that created the element, said synthesizing a new element will be of no practical use for daily life, their feat is still significant. It is the first element to be discovered in an Asian country and will also be permanently put on the periodic table to be taught in schools throughout the world. We hope that the creation of nihonium will rouse Japanese children’s interest in science and thus help spawn future scientists, and remind the government of the importance of bolstering the foundation for the nation’s basic research.

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) has opened the proposed names of four newly created elements, including nihonium, to a five-month public review. Morita’s team worked at the government-backed research institute Riken’s Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science, named after the late Yoshio Nishina, who is known as “the founding father of modern physics research in Japan.” The three other elements are element 115 with the proposed name moscovium and symbol Mc; element 117 as tennessine (Ts); and element 118 as oganesson (Og). The first two were created through a collaboration between the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Russia and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Vanderbilt University and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — all three in the United States — and the third one created through a collaboration between the Russian institute and the Lawrence Livermore laboratory. Past experience shows that names proposed by the creators usually become official.

An element is a group of substances, each having an identical number of protons in the nucleus. In the periodic table, elements are arranged in the order of the number of protons in each element. Element 1 is hydrogen, element 2 helium, element 3 lithium and element 4 beryllium. In 1908, the late Masataka Ogawa, who tried to find a new element during his two years of research in Britain, announced after coming back to Japan that he had discovered element 43 and named it nipponium. But his claim was later found to be wrong.

Elements through No. 92 (uranium) exist stably in nature. Element 93 and thereafter have been artificially created in laboratories beginning in 1940. We should bear in mind what Morita said about the creation of new elements — that historically, behind their creation was the development of atomic bombs. The plutonium — element 94 — that was used in making the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in August 1945 was produced in large quantities by having uranium capture a neutron and then having neptunium born through this process capture a neutron in a nuclear reactor.

The basic way to create a new element is to accelerate either a proton or a lighter element by using an accelerator and to hit it against a heavier element. A new element can be created through the fusion of them. Creation of a new element requires a large accelerator and technology for detecting a new element, which disintegrates quickly. Around 1940, Nishina at Riken created element 93, or neptunium, by using an accelerator, but since Riken did not have the technology to separate it from other substances, he could not be named the creator of the new element. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union competed with each other in the creation of new elements to demonstrate their scientific prowess.

In Japan, Riken embarked on a project to create a new element in the 1980s. Morita joined the project from the first and succeeded in building the world’s most accurate detector. His team tried to create element 113 by accelerating element 30 (zinc) to a speed of one-tenth the speed of light and hitting it against element 83 (bismuth). Only in 1999, the team was able to lay the foundation in terms of equipment for the attempt. Since the team began its attempts in 2003, it actually created the element three times — in 2004, 2005 and 2012. The element, which is extremely radioactive, disintegrates in one-five hundredths of a second. But it is thought that studying how a superheavy synthetic element like element 113 comes into being will contribute to studies of the evolution of stars and the universe.

The Russian institute and the Lawrence Livermore laboratoy jointly claimed to have created element 113. But the Joint Working Party of IUPAC and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics confirmed that the Riken team headed by Morita has the right to claim its creation.

The government needs to realize that accumulation of technology and experience by the Riken team over more than 30 years led to the creation of element 113. It must note what Morita emphasizes: that it is impossible to create a new element unless each device researchers use is the world’s best.

Scientists are both competing and collaborating to find answers to such questions as: “How long will the periodic table become?” and “What characteristics does a superheavy element have?” These questions, which may be useless from the viewpoint of lay people, are helping widen the horizon of human knowledge.

The Japanese government and businesses seem to be obsessed with the idea of producing human resources that achieve quick results leading to commercial gain. Such a mindset could undermine the foundation of scientific research, especially basic research. In the U.S. and Europe, there are cases in which young researchers who built up their career in basic research are serving as driving forces of new industries. Basic research projects also provide opportunities to enhance cross-border cooperation between researchers. The government and businesses should be aware of the danger of their shortsighted approach.