Ever since the discovery of element 99 – Einsteinium – back in 1952 by researchers from the Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) who were studying the debris of the first hydrogen bomb, further studies have been few and far between, mostly because of how difficult it is to create, as well as due to its exceptional radioactivity.
Now, however, writing in the journal Nature, a group of chemists reports the results of experiments performed on 250 nanograms of the element that allowed them to perform the first-ever measurement of einsteinium’s bond distance.
According to Berkeley Lab’s Rebecca Abergel – one of the study’s lead authors – the findings are significant because a more thorough understanding of the element could lead to new materials and technologies, “not necessarily just with einsteinium, but with the rest of the actinides too”, as well as improved understanding of periodic trends.
Using facilities that were not available at the time of the element’s discovery – and following “a long series of unfortunate events” – the team was able to create a small amount of einsteinium-254, which is one of einsteinium’s more stable isotopes, at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s High Flux Isotope Reactor.
The Berkeley Lab einsteinium group wore respirators to continue their work on the elusive element. Image courtesy of Marilyn Sargent/Berkeley Lab
Next, with the help of researchers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Abergel and her colleagues designed sample holders uniquely suited for handling fickle elements like einsteinium.
With all preparatory stages complete, Abergel’s team conducted a series of experiments, before being interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. After finally returning to the lab in the summer of 2020, most of the sample was already gone – einsteinium-254 has a half-life of 276 days.
Luckily, the work performed before the pandemic hit full swing was enough to determine the element’s bond distance, which is the first step in figuring out how the element is likely to interact with other atoms and molecules.
This knowledge would also improve our understanding of the whole actinide series – the elements on the bottom row of the periodic table – which includes elements and isotopes that could be used for generating nuclear power and developing new radiopharmaceuticals.
Furthermore, if scientists manage to isolate enough pure einsteinium in the near future, this could enable them to use it as a “target” for searches for new elements beyond the edges of the periodic table.
“You could start looking for other elements and get closer to the (theorised) island of stability,” explained Abergel. Elements that may be lurking in the aforesaid “island” could have half-lives of minutes or even days, as compared to the microseconds and less that are often seen in the super-heavy element class.