THE ISLAND OF STABILITY
Scientists and engineers have been improving batteries since Alessandro Volta made the first one in 1800. This progress must continue if we are to have a future world powered by clean energy.
But creating new breakthroughs in battery technology will require overcoming many challenges. Critical engineering obstacles include: electrode degradation, charging-discharging performance, and size and weight. We want small, lightweight powerful batteries that charge rapidly, discharge slowly and last for decades. Unfortunately, batteries like this don’t exist.
The performance peak of current technology is rapidly approaching. Lithium-ion batteries are the best available. No element in the periodic table possesses better energy storage characteristics.
This raises several questions: Where will breakthroughs in battery performance come? If lithium is the best material for making batteries can we make something better? Can we create a new element with extraordinary electrical properties?
It’s been done before. Scientists started creating new elements and extending the periodic table in the 1940’s as a spinoff of the Manhattan Project. In the 1960’s the media dubbed these researchers “the atom smashers.”
Glenn Seaborg is an “atom-smasher” who made a career out of discovering (actually creating) new elements. For his work he received the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He extended the periodic table by inventing, or helping to invent, ten new elements.
Figure 1. Glenn Seaborg, 1951 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry
So how exactly do you create a new element from scratch? To do this scientists developed machines called particle accelerators, cyclotrons, and ion colliders. These enabled them to take two known elements and ram them together with enough energy their nuclei fuse forming a new one. Elements larger than uranium were all discovered this way.
However, it’s not easy. In general, as an atomic nucleus gets bigger it becomes increasingly unstable. The repulsive forces of the positively charged protons make these large elements very elusive. Their center cannot hold. They decay, transmuting into a more stable element and giving off radiation. Elements Americium-95, to Organesson-118, don’t exist on Earth. After creation in a laboratory they disappear in fractions of seconds.
This creates a huge problem. What good is a new element if it decays so rapidly you can’t do anything with it?
Seaborg believed a solution existed. He theorized scientists could create new, larger elements that will exist for years, decades, perhaps thousands of years. Doing this requires combining existing atoms in a way that the nuclear forces are balanced resulting in a new stable nucleus. He called these ideal numbers of protons and neutrons “magic.”
To illustrate his ideas Seaborg made a graph of the known, and yet to be discovered elements. He plotted the number of protons on the Y-axis and the number of neutrons on the X-axis. He called this the “Map of Isotopes.”
This led to a cluster of data points he called the “Continent of Elements,” that represented all stable elements and their isotopes. A “Sea of Instability” surrounded it, where the nuclear forces are too erratic to hold an element together. The Strait of Radioactivity separates stable elements found on Earth from ones that undergo radioactive decay, like thorium (Th) and uranium (U).
Seaborg theorized that many new elements waited to be discovered. These atoms, located far to the right in an area of the graph he called “The Island of Stability,” possessed the magic numbers of protons and neutrons rendering them super stable with half-lives perhaps lasting millennia and possessing unimagined properties.
One exciting possibility is the element with 126 protons and 184 neutrons–given the temporary name, unbihexium (Ubh, pronounced “Un-bee-hexium”). This magical new element could possess incredible physical characteristics that might include antigravity and electrical properties orders of magnitude better than lithium.
If true, it would tear down barriers leading to a planet powered by clean energy. Compact lightweight powerful batteries with short charging times and lengthy discharging times then become a reality. Combine this with improvements in solar energy extraction and one can envision self-charging EVs that use sunlight as fuel.
That’s a nice thought. Global transportation will change causing carbon emissions to plummet leading to a more stable climate. The possibilities are even more sweeping. Lighting, heating, manufacturing will be improved, all powered by the sun.
Is this possible? Who knows what the future holds. But one thing is certain, while some people embrace technological advancements others have a vested interest (usually financial) to maintain the status quo. When these interests clash conflict results.
Find out what happens when a nuclear chemist discovers element-126 in the latest Mark Thurman novel, Stability Island. The world won’t be the same. Available in June 2021.
Figure 3. Book 3 in the Mark Thurman series