The Beauty of Berkelium

By: Nick Swafford

We’ve all seen the periodic table and we’re all, at one point or another, subjected to test on the workings of it. If you’re like me, I doubt you can remember the exact atomic numbers or symbols of each element. I can’t even remember the names of each element! I do, however, remember those two strange lines at the bottom of the periodic table that are detached from the rest. One of the elements has recently caught my attention: Berkelium (berk-lee-um).

 

Berkelium is a synthetic actinide metal, which means it’s in the group of heavily radioactive materials and is toxic to the touch. With 97 protons, 150 neutrons, and 97 electrons, it is a very heavy element. Compared to other elements like gold, which has an atomic mass of 196.967, Berkelium is a hefty element with an atomic mass of 247. But its mass isn’t what makes this element a showstopper, it’s how it defies quantum mechanics.

 

Before we get into that, allow me to give some background information. Berkelium was created in 1949 by scientists at the University of California at Berkeley. It was first created by “bombarding” americium-241 with alpha particles (helium nuclei) for several hours then separating the elements with acid. This created the Berkelium-243 isotope. Sadly, the isotope had a half-life of only 5 hours, so it didn’t even survive a day.

 

In the 1960s, the element was made to last substantially longer with the isotope Berkelium-249, which is what scientists use to study today. Still, the isotope only lasts 320 days and is incredibly expensive to create, starting at $185 per microgram. To put that into context, there are one million micrograms in a gram, so it’s about 185 million dollars for just one gram of the cheapest form of Berkelium. Insane, I know. Because of the momentous price of the element, we have no use for it. Only billionaires can afford to do anything with Berkelium, and scientists aren’t exactly given hundreds of millions for just a gram. Although in the outside world, it isn’t used for anything, the element and its isotopes are very useful in the lab, as they are used to create heavier elements.

 

The electrons that surround Berkelium are what really stand out, as they don’t follow the usual rules set forth by quantum mechanics. In most elements like zinc, oxygen, or silver, electrons line up with each other to face the same direction and move at only about 1,367 miles per hour—less than 1% of the speed of light. Berkelium’s electrons, however, move erratically and tend to speed up to speeds of significant fractions of the speed of light. Chemists have found that Berkelium is aligned better with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity rather than Quantum Mechanics. Einstein’s theory states when mass moves at high speeds its weight will increase as well. This could explain Berkelium’s momentous weight.

 

Now, unless you’re a science nerd like me, this may not seem like such a big deal. But this discovery opens so many doors in chemistry. If elements aren’t bound by the laws of quantum mechanics, then where does that leave our understanding of the periodic table and the elements within them? For all I know, the entirety of the periodic table can change based on this knowledge. It’s been known to happen before, like when Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table was changed for Henry Moseley’s findings. Why couldn’t it happen now?

 

Even though we can’t use Berkelium for anything, that won’t stop us from researching the element further, so more findings will present themselves in time. Until then, let’s just hope we can find out more about Berkelium before our wallets run dry.

 

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