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Science Scoops


Happy Birthday, Element 118!

Oh, wait. It’s already gone.

Everything on Earth, including rocks, air, water, and your own body, is made of elements. Each element has a number, which is equal to the number of protons in its nucleus. This year, element 112 finally got a name: copernicium, after the Polish astronomer Copernicus, who dared to tell the world that the Earth revolved around the Sun. That’s a huge number of protons — 112! Oxygen has only eight, and gold has 79. Uranium (number 92) is the biggest element you can find in nature; the rest can only be created in a laboratory. This is because heavier elements are less stable, meaning that they tend to decay, or break down, into lighter elements. Elements with numbers in the hundreds may last only a few nanoseconds or less before decaying completely. Hello, copernicium. Oops, goodbye!

Here’s the weird thing. As elements get really big, their survival rates seem to go up a tiny bit. Element 118, also known as ununoctium, lasts less than a millisecond, but elements 114 and 116 last longer than expected. This fact leads some to wonder whether there might be an island of stable, super-heavy elements just waiting to be discovered.

“Even though we’re not quite to the region of stability yet, we see things that can last tens of seconds, close to minutes,” Dawn Shaughnessy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California told LiveScience. “For these kinds of things, a minute is like an eternity.”

Livermore scientists have worked together with a team from the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Russia to discover five new elements: 113, 114, 115, 116, and 118, the largest element ever created. The international team hopes to find the “magic number” of protons or neutrons that would lead to brand new, possibly useful, atoms. Who knows what sort of crazy things you could make with an atom that the universe had never seen before?


Pop, pop, pop! Everyone loves bubbles. But have you ever wondered why they don’t come in different colors? When inventor Tim Kehoe asked this question, people told him it was impossible to color a bubble. “Which is discouraging when that is exactly what you are trying to do,” Kehoe told Discovery News.

Tim Kehoe refused to give up. His color chemistry experiments temporarily stained the whites of his eyes blue, ruined several kitchens and bathtubs, and once filled his house with poisonous fumes. Finally, 15 years and 3 million dollars after Kehoe began his bubble color quest, the “impossible” is finally on sale. Zubbles come in pink or blue, and more colors will soon be available. What’s the secret?

The first trick was getting the color to stick. Bubbles are very delicate, simple structures: The clear walls are made up of water sandwiched between soap molecules. Try adding food coloring to your bubble stuff, and the dye will just slide down the walls of the bubble and collect in a little dot at the bottom. The color needs to bond to the soap molecules and spread out nicely across the whole water wall. So Kehoe came up with a dye that stuck, but stuck too well. When the bubbles broke, they stained. Who wants to play with a bubble that will turn you and your clothes blue, pink, or yellow if you touch it? Okay, maybe you’d love it, but your mom sure wouldn’t!

Problem number two — the search for non-staining bubble dye — took years of careful chemistry, and resulted in a dye that evaporates quickly in air. It looks like a broken Zubble is going to leave an icky stain, but within minutes, the dye disappears. That’s what I call some color magic! And the magic doesn’t end with bubbles. Kehoe’s already coming up with some other great ideas for disappearing color: vanishing graffiti spray, wall paint that you can try out for an hour to see if you like it, and toothpaste that colors your mouth until you’re done brushing.

What would you do with a disappearing color dye? Send your best ideas to [email protected] or write to: COLOR MAGIC, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Next Stop: Nuclear

Molten-salt reactor. Supercritical water-cooled reactor. Lead-cooled fast reactor. If those sound like names out of a sci-fi movie, think again! They are only three of six super-cool new nuclear power plant designs being researched by the Generation IV International Forum (GIF). Each design is safer and more efficient than the nuclear power plants we already have. GIF formed in 2000 and plans to build new and improved plants by 2030 at the latest.

These new reactor technologies use many different kinds of materials including liquid metals, helium, and graphite to control nuclear fission and convert its heat into power. One exciting development is the amount of heat they will be able to generate. One design would operate at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit — that’s 1,200 degrees hotter than older reactors, and enough heat to produce hydrogen, which may be the fuel of the future for our cars and airplanes.

It’s difficult to think nuclear power and not think about glowing radiation, atomic bombs, and Chernobyl. But nuclear power plants may be the best way to make electricity without destroying the planet, concluded a recent report in Fortune magazine.

Nuclear fission makes all this possible. It occurs when the atomic nucleus of an element, usually a special kind of uranium, is hit with a neutron. The nucleus splits, forming a radioactive isotope and releasing more neutrons. These neutrons go off and hit the nuclei of nearby uranium atoms, causing a chain reaction. To keep the reaction under control, certain materials that absorb neutrons (or slow them down) are added to the reactor. These are called moderators.

The process of fission generates a lot of heat — and this is where the power comes from. A coolant, often water, carries heat from the reactor core to a nearby facility where the heat is converted into electricity. Most of today’s reactors use the steam from boiling water to turn a turbine. The coolant also keeps the reactor from getting too hot and melting.

Nuclear fission generates huge amounts of energy at very little environmental cost. Just one ton of natural uranium yields the same amount of electricity as 20,000 tons of coal or 300 million cubic feet of gas. And unlike gas and coal burning plants, the nuclear process doesn’t pollute the atmosphere. Yes, there is something that looks like smoke rising from the towers of a nuclear power plant, but that’s actually just water vapor!

The waste produced by nuclear plants is a problem, though, especially since no one really knows what long term effects the used fuel may have on the environment. The government has been trying to open a waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada for the past 30 years, but protestors and lawyers have kept the mountain empty. For now, depleted radioactive materials are usually stored at each power plant in huge pools of water.

Meltdowns would actually be less likely at the new reactors (despite the increased heat) because safety systems are more sophisticated (lots of checks and rechecks and less reliance on human observation) and the rules are much stricter than at old reactors. Still, the nuclear question is a hot one.

Nuclear fission — A reaction in which an atomic nucleus splits into fragments, releasing great amounts of energy
Chernobyl — A city of north-central Ukraine and the site of the worst nuclear power plant accident in history on April 16, 1986; the meltdown, severe over-heating and melting of the nuclear core reactor, resulted in the release of large amounts of dangerous radiation.
Isotope — One of two or more atoms having the same atomic number and similar chemical behavior, but with different atomic masses

What’s That Smell?

In the classic E.B.White novel Charlotte’s Web, Templeton the rat keeps an unhatched goose egg in Wilbur’s pigpen. One day, the boy Avery tries to capture Wilbur’s spider friend Charlotte. Avery slips, the egg is broken, and the smell of rotten egg fills the barnyard. People and animals run for cover, and Charlotte is saved.

The gas that makes rotten eggs smell, well, rotten is called hydrogen sulfide (chemical formula: H2S). According to two scientists, hydrogen sulfide may one day save lives in another way.

Hydrogen sulfide not only smells bad, but also it is poisonous. It replaces oxygen in the body’s cells, and without oxygen, our cells die. Usually.

In the June 2005 issue of Scientific American, however, researchers Mark Roth and Todd Nystul report that laboratory mice placed in pure hydrogen sulfide gas do not die, but instead enter a sort of hibernation. The mice lose consciousness, and their body temperature drops. After six hours, the mice are given oxygen, and they recover fully.

The scientists believe that as long as all the oxygen is replaced, each mouse’s cells shut down completely. With just a little oxygen present, some parts of their cells might try to keep operating. This could create chemical imbalances that lead to cell death. The key is to replace all the oxygen with hydrogen sulfide. Roth and Nystul believe that this technique might someday be used on humans.

If the scientists are right, then human accident victims might be sent into hibernation with hydrogen sulfide gas. This would give rescue workers extra time to transport injured patients to hospitals. Many lives might be saved by a stinky gas found in rotten eggs.

Expansive Crystals

Who would argue? When you place a solid in a vise and increase the pressure, it should compress, right? Well, an international team of scientists claims that they have discovered a crystal formation that appears to do just the opposite: It appears to expand under pressure.

Meet natrolite — a crystal whose three-dimensional structure contains regularly spaced pores. Yongjae Lee at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, NY, and his colleagues discovered this counterintuitive behavior. They placed a natrolite crystal in a cell filled with a water-alcohol mixture and then squeezed it between two diamond anvils to pressures up to 50,000 times normal atmospheric pressure. Actually, the crystal initially compressed as expected. But when the pressure ranged between 8,000 and 15,000 times atmospheric pressure, the crystal appeared to expand. As the pressure increased further, however, the material compressed again.

Was the expansion some kind of illusion? No. An X-ray analysis of the expansion suggests that the material expanded because water molecules from the water-alcohol solution were squeezed into the pores within the natrolite, causing it to temporarily expand.

The researchers have already come up with a use for natrolite, namely as a crystal sponge for chemical cleanups. You see, when natrolite expands, so too do its pores. So natrolite can absorb pollutants when it’s under pressure. By simply releasing the pressure, the pores will get smaller and trap the pollutants inside.

New Elements Created

Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California are celebrating a smashing success. The researchers used a cyclotron particle accelerator to bombard a lead target with projectiles of krypton atoms. When the krypton atoms smashed into the lead target, the two elements occasionally fused to create the newest, heaviest elements yet: element 118 (118 protons, 175 neutrons) and element 116 (116 protons, 173 neutrons). After forming, element 118 decayed in 0.0001 second to element 116, and then to the already-known element 106 (seaborgium).

The discovery came as a complete surprise to most nuclear chemists. No one thought that such heavyweights could be produced, until recent calculations suggested it could be done. Now the periodic table – a tabular arrangement of elements by their atomic number (the number of protons in an atomic nucleus) – has two new members.

Vanilla Beaners vs. Chocolate Chompers

In summer, nothing satisfies you like a lick of cool, delicious ice cream. The problem is that we’ve got to be concerned about the fat and calories. Ah, but thanks to new ice cream formulas and a variety of fat replacers, there are dozens of ice cream products on the market today that will help us stay healthy.

By definition, low-fat ice creams contain less than three grams (27 calories) of fat per half-cup serving. Though fat grams are regulated, calories do vary greatly among brands depending on the amount of sugar used in formulas – so we still have to be careful. But that is not what this scoop is about. The question, ice cream connoisseurs, is this: Do low-fat ice creams retain the taste and texture of traditional ones?

To find out, chemist Ingoll U. Gruen conducted a taste test at the University of Missouri in Columbia. The conclusion? Most people enjoyed the taste of low-fat chocolate ice cream as much as they did that of traditional chocolate ice cream.

GASP! This is a most surprising and startling finding. Who were these alien taste testers? Certainly "vanilla-beaners" are chuckling, because when they were tested, they turned up their noses at the low-fat versions of their favorite flavor. Low-fat vanilla ice cream, they said, had a harsher, less smooth taste. Are the taste buds of "vanilla beaners" superior to those of "chocolate chompers"? Gruen says they aren’t. "Chocolate is a very complex flavor," he explains, resulting from about 500 different compounds. The complexity of chocolate probably masks any taste change due to the lack of milk fat. Vanilla is a simpler flavor.

Well, if you believe that, there’s a Face on Mars we’d like to show you.

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