Thursday 16 June 2016

Shipping Olds

Title is waggish reference to Annie Proulx's book Shipping News as well as a reprise to my use of 'Olds' to cover things that didn't happen last night but are nevertheless interesting. Since talking Alaska a tuthree days ago, I've mentioned the exciting news from chemistry which is about the naming of parts 113-118 in the periodic table.  In that short, derivative essay, I went off topic to rant about Glenn Seaborg and his despair at everyone else's ignorance. So I'm back on track to talk briefly about Uus, ununseptium, eka-astatine, or tennessine. For an element for which only 15 atoms have been clearly identified that's a helluva lot of names!

Those atoms were made by bombarding Berkelium [Bk, element 97] with Calcium [Ca, element 20] nuclei until a handful of the atoms fused together long enough to be detected as having a atomic charge of 117. The atomic number is the number of protons in the nucleus, so the math is simple 97 + 20 = 117 but the nuclear chemistry is damnably more complicated than I can explain here. Uus is the last element to be so created / discovered, because it turned out that oganesson Og element 118 was lower hanging fruit and had been created first.  The methodology for making oganesson was the same as for Uus with a different starting point: bombarding Californium [Cf, element 98] with calcium as before. Californium was more widely available because it was used in certain industrial processes. Berkelium, on the other hand, was only produced in ORNL, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and then only as a by-product of the production of Californium. When Yuri Oganessian from Dubna in Russia wanted to try for creating Uus, he had to wait for the next commercial order of Californium.

They had to run the purification process for 250 days to get together a mere 22mg of berkelium.  It's a balanced tradeoff, the half-life of berkelium is 330 days, so as the stash is being accumulated in one teeny-tiny bucket, it is effectively leaking out the bottom. Once it is made, therefore, time is of the essence if anyone is to do any experiments with the sample, before all the atoms decay into something else. So the boys at ORNL wrapped the precious fragment in a Russian doll contraption of lead boxes containing lead boxes and shipped it to Moscow, with an Urgent - useless if delayed sticker on it. Russian customs, who weren't going to be brow-beaten by imperialist Yankee-dogs, read through the paperwork with a nit-comb and decided they could not accept it. So the parcel went back to the USA - and back to Russia; and back to the USA - until after nearly 40,000km of air miles it was on it's way in a van to Dubna.  That first experiment yielded 6 atoms of Uus and everyone was ecstatic.

Next time DHL or FedEx or the customs agent at your local airport pisses you off with some bureaucratic and costly requirement over the goods you ordered over the interweb, reflect that it's been worse and more expensive for some other people.

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