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The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been such a constant companion in our theaters, and in our hearts, that it’s hard to believe it’s been around for both as long and short a time as it has. This week marks the 10-year anniversary of Iron Man 2, and while it is not the most beloved or even the most memorable of the Marvel slate, it did offer up some interesting ideas.
In addition to the requisite villain, Tony Stark finds himself up against an even more pressing challenge: The palladium powering the miniature arc reactor in his chest (the one keeping him alive) is poisoning him — and he’s gone through the entire periodic table looking for a suitable replacement, without success. As is the Stark way, when the solution to a problem doesn’t exist, you must create it yourself. With some help from his late father and a DIY particle accelerator, Tony is able to synthesize a brand new element.
There is plenty about the way this is done, which strains the bounds of plausibility, but the central question remains: Could Stark have created a new element? And, if so, could it have worked in the way it’s portrayed onscreen?
THE FIRST SYNTHETIC ELEMENT
In the world of scientific discovery, the synthesis of new elements is relatively new, dating back less than 100 years. Though the search for a complete chemical understanding of the world goes back even further.
Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev created the first recognizable period table of elements in 1869. He did so by organizing known elements by specific properties. Elements are listed by atomic number — the number of protons present in the nucleus — but are also grouped by the number of electrons in specific subshells. (You likely remember staring at this chart on the wall of your high school science class.)
In short, Mendeleev’s table created a visual representation of matter and allowed chemists to make predictions about the behavior of various elements, including those not yet discovered. Mendeleev’s table organized the known elements in such a way that there were perceived gaps, specifically element 43, sitting between molybdenum and ruthenium.
In 1937 an Italian physicist by the name of Emilio Segre came into possession of a piece of molybdenum shipped over from the University of California, Berkeley. That metal sheet had been a piece of one of the first particle accelerators.
Previous research had shown that one element could be changed into another by bombarding it with radiation. And Segre had the idea that, during the accelerator’s experiments, the radiation bombarding this sheet of molybdenum might have resulted in the creation of the undiscovered element 43.
A chemical analysis of the plate proved his assumptions correct, and a gap in the periodic table was filled. Analysis of element 43, later named technetium, also revealed why it hadn’t previously been observed in nature. It was unstable, with a half-life a little more than 4 million years.
While 4 million years is a long time on human timescales, it is brief enough that any naturally existing technetium present from the formation of the Earth had long since decayed.
The discovery of Technetium has had longstanding impacts on the field of chemistry, not only igniting the atomic age but also resulting in the eventual creation of a technetium isotope commonly used in nuclear medicine.
A NEW LEAF IN THE TABLE
In the decades since Segre’s initial discovery, the race to synthesize new elements has continued. At current, there are 24 artificial elements that have been created in laboratory settings, some of them having been confirmed as recently as a few years ago.
These most recent new elements are incredibly unstable, with half-lives ranging from seconds to milliseconds. They disappear almost as quickly as they appear, which makes them difficult to study. It also makes it difficult to identify any practical applications.
To date, the periodic table is complete from 1 (hydrogen) to 118 (oganesson), but the search continues.
Generally speaking, the heavier an element is, the less stable. This is because the positively charged protons repel one another. This goes a long way toward explaining the incredible decay rates of the most recently crafted elements.
This could be a particular problem for the Tony Starks of the world. Whatever element Stark created to replace the palladium in his arc reactor, it couldn’t have existed on the periodic table we have today. There aren’t any gaps he could have filled in, and none of the superheavy elements we’ve discovered thus far live long enough to build anything with.
This suggests that whatever he created is something further down the line, which has a whole host of obstacles to overcome as heavier elements tend to be increasingly difficult to synthesize and, owing to their nature, tend not to last very long.
There is hope, however. Scientists believe there may be islands of stability further down the elemental line, spaces on the periodic table where new elements will remain stable for longer timescales, despite the behavior of their neighbors. And even if these islands of stability are rare, there may be ample space to find them. The ultimate size of the periodic table is a matter of some dispute, but some scientists believe there could be more than 200 elements before all is said and done.
HOW DO WE GET THERE?
At present, creating new elements mostly involves smashing together smaller elements and hoping they’ll stick together long enough for us to take a peak. It’s also possible that superheavy elements exist in the hearts of stars, and it may be possible for us to study them there, someday.
This is where these new elements do come in handy. They may not have many, if any, practical applications today, but each one serves as a stepping stone to the next.
The major hurdle today is the limitations of our own technology. While the upper limit of the periodic table may still be nearly 100 elements away, we may not have the ability to reach that far. Yet.
But if there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s looking to the horizon and imagining how we might find a way to reach beyond it.
Scientists continue to press those boundaries, using our tools to mash the building blocks of the universe together in novel ways, if for nothing else than the pursuit of knowledge. Those four elements recently added to the table should give us hope that we’ve not yet reached the end, that new discoveries are waiting for us, waiting for a real-life Stark to come along.