Unbiunium, also known as eka-actinium or simply element 121, is the hypothetical chemical element with symbol Ubu and atomic number 121. Unbiunium and Ubu are the temporary systematic IUPAC name and symbol respectively, which are used until the element is discovered, confirmed, and a permanent name is decided upon. In the periodic table of the elements, it is expected to be the first of the superactinides, and the third element in the eighth period: analogously to lanthanum and actinium, it could be considered the fifth member of group 3 and the first member of the fifth-row transition metals. It has attracted attention because of some predictions that it may be in the island of stability, although newer calculations expect the island to actually occur at a slightly lower atomic number, closer to copernicium and flerovium.
|Alternative names||element 121, eka-actinium|
|Mass number||320 (most stable isotope)|
|Unbiunium in the periodic table|
|Atomic number (Z)||121|
|Element category||superactinide; could be considered a transition metalUnknown chemical properties, but probably a|
|Electron configuration||[Og] 8s2 8p1 (predicted)|
Electrons per shell
|2, 8, 18, 32, 32, 18, 8, 3|
|Oxidation states||(+1), (+3) (predicted)|
|Naming||IUPAC systematic element name|
|Main isotopes of unbiunium|
Unbiunium has not yet been synthesized. Nevertheless, because it is only three elements away from the heaviest known element, oganesson (element 118), its synthesis may come in the near future; it is expected to be one of the last few reachable elements with current technology, and the limit may be anywhere between element 120 and 124. It will also likely be far more difficult to synthesize than the elements known so far up to 118, and still more difficult than elements 119 and 120. The team at RIKEN in Japan has plans to attempt the synthesis of element 121 in the future after its attempts on elements 119 and 120.
The position of unbiunium in the periodic table suggests that it would have similar properties to its lighter congeners, scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, and actinium; however, relativistic effects may cause some of its properties to differ from those expected from a straight application of periodic trends. For example, unbiunium is expected to have a s2p valence electron configuration instead of the s2d of its lighter congeners in group 3, but this is not expected to significantly affect its chemistry, which is predicted to be that of a normal group 3 element; it would on the other hand significantly lower its first ionisation energy beyond what would be expected from periodic trends.
Transactinide elements, such as unbiunium, are produced by nuclear fusion. These fusion reactions can be divided into "hot" and "cold" fusion,[a] depending on the excitation energy of the compound nucleus produced. In hot fusion reactions, very light, high-energy projectiles are accelerated toward very heavy targets (actinides), giving rise to compound nuclei at high excitation energies (~40–50 MeV) that may fission or evaporate several (3 to 5) neutrons. In cold fusion reactions (which use heavier projectiles, typically from the fourth period, and lighter targets, usually lead and bismuth), the fused nuclei produced have a relatively low excitation energy (~10–20 MeV), which decreases the probability that these products will undergo fission reactions. As the fused nuclei cool to the ground state, they require emission of only one or two neutrons. However, hot fusion reactions tend to produce more neutron-rich products because the actinides have the highest neutron-to-proton ratios of any element that can presently be made in macroscopic quantities; it is currently the only method to produce the superheavy elements from flerovium (element 114) onward.
Attempts to synthesize elements 119 and 120 push the limits of current technology, due to the decreasing cross sections of the production reactions and their probably short half-lives, expected to be on the order of microseconds. Heavier elements, beginning with element 121, would likely be too short-lived to be detected with current technology, decaying within a microsecond before reaching the detectors. Where this one-microsecond border of half-lives lies is not known, and this may allow the synthesis of some isotopes of elements 121 through 124, with the exact limit depending on the model chosen for predicting nuclide masses. It is also possible that element 120 is the last element reachable with current experimental techniques, and that elements from 121 onward will require new methods.
Because of the current impossibility of synthesizing elements beyond californium (Z = 98) in sufficient quantities to create a target, with einsteinium (Z = 99) targets being currently considered, the practical synthesis of elements beyond oganesson requires heavier projectiles, such as titanium-50, chromium-54, iron-58, or nickel-64. This, however, has the drawback of resulting in more symmetrical fusion reactions that are colder and less likely to succeed. For example, the reaction between 243Am and 58Fe is expected to have a cross section on the order of 0.5 fb, several orders of magnitude lower than measured cross sections in successful reactions; such an obstacle would make this and similar reactions infeasible for producing unbiunium.
* → no atoms
No atoms were identified.
Currently, the beam intensities at superheavy element facilities result in about 1012 projectiles hitting the target per second; this cannot be increased without burning the target and the detector, and producing larger amounts of the increasingly unstable actinides needed for the target is impractical. The team at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna is building a new superheavy element factory (SHE-factory) with improved detectors and the ability to work on a smaller scale, but even so continuing beyond element 120 and perhaps 121 would be a great challenge. Chemist, writer, and philosopher of science Eric Scerri has noted that the development of new technologies in the field has been driven by the quest for new elements, so that the inability to proceed beyond elements 120 and 121 with current technologies may not necessarily cause a very long pause in new discoveries.
It is possible that the age of fusion–evaporation reactions to produce new superheavy elements is coming to an end due to the increasingly short half-lives to spontaneous fission and the looming proton drip line, so that new techniques such as nuclear transfer reactions (for example, firing uranium nuclei at each other and letting them exchange protons, potentially producing products with around 120 protons) would be required to reach the superactinides. On the other hand, many changes in techniques have been needed to synthesize transuranium elements, from neutron capture (until Z = 100) to light-ion bombardment (until Z = 110) to cold fusion (until Z = 113) and now hot fusion with 48Ca (until Z = 118), not to mention the essential difference before and after uranium between finding the elements chemically or spectroscopically in nature and synthesizing them. In spite of this, the rate of discovery of new elements has remained at one every two and a half years on average for the past two and a half centuries.
The team at RIKEN has listed the synthesis of element 121 among their future plans after their attempts to synthesize element 120 in 2017–2018 and element 119 in 2019–2020. Because the cross sections of these fusion-evaporation reactions increase with the asymmetry of the reaction, titanium would be a better projectile than chromium for the synthesis of element 121, though this necessitates an einsteinium target. This poses severe challenges due to the significant heating and damage of the target due to the high radioactivity of einsteinium-254, but it would probably be the most promising approach to element 119 with 48Ca beams and possibly element 121 with 50Ti beams. It would also require working on a smaller scale due to the lower amount of 254Es that can be produced. This small-scale work could in the near future only be carried out in Dubna's SHE-factory.
+ 4 1
+ 3 1
For further elements up to 124, given that increasing the neutron number allows for getting closer to the predicted closed neutron shell at N = 184 that would confer stability, the use of weakly radioactive iron-60 (with a half-life of 2.6 million years) instead of stable iron-58 as a projectile has been considered. The isotopes 299Ubu, 300Ubu, and 301Ubu that could be produced in these reactions via the 3n and 4n channels are expected to be the only reachable unbiunium isotopes with half-lives long enough for detection; the cross sections would nevertheless push the limits of what can currently be detected. For example, the cross section of the aforementioned reaction between 254Es and 50Ti is predicted to be on the order of 7 fb in the 4n channel, four times lower than the lowest measured cross section for a successful reaction. Should such a reaction be successful, though, the resulting nuclei would decay through isotopes of ununennium that could be produced by cross-bombardments in the 248Cm+51V or 249Bk+50Ti reactions, which will be tried at RIKEN and JINR respectively in 2017–2020, down through known isotopes of tennessine and moscovium synthesized in the 249Bk+48Ca and 243Am+48Ca reactions. The multiplicity of excited states populated by the alpha decay of odd nuclei may however preclude clear cross-bombardment cases, as was seen in the controversial link between 293Ts and 289Mc. Heavier isotopes are expected to be more stable; 320Ubu is predicted to be the most stable unbiunium isotope, but there is no way to synthesize it with current technology as no combination of usable target and projectile could provide enough neutrons.
The laboratories at RIKEN in Japan and at the JINR in Russia are best suited to these experiments as they are the only ones in the world where long beam times are accessible for reactions with such low predicted cross sections.
Using Mendeleev's nomenclature for unnamed and undiscovered elements, unbiunium should be known as eka-actinium. Using the 1979 IUPAC recommendations, the element should be temporarily called unbiunium (symbol Ubu) until it is discovered, the discovery is confirmed, and a permanent name chosen. Although widely used in the chemical community on all levels, from chemistry classrooms to advanced textbooks, the recommendations are mostly ignored among scientists who work theoretically or experimentally on superheavy elements, who call it "element 121", with the symbol E121, (121), or 121.
Nuclear stability and isotopesEdit
The stability of nuclei decreases greatly with the increase in atomic number after curium, element 96, whose half-life is four orders of magnitude longer than that of any currently known higher-numbered element. All isotopes with an atomic number above 101 undergo radioactive decay with half-lives of less than 30 hours. No elements with atomic numbers above 82 (after lead) have stable isotopes. Nevertheless, for reasons not yet well understood, there is a slight increase of nuclear stability around atomic numbers 110–114, which leads to the appearance of what is known in nuclear physics as the "island of stability". This concept, proposed by University of California professor Glenn Seaborg and stemming from the stabilizing effects of the closed nuclear shells around Z = 114 (or possibly 120, 122, 124, or 126) and N = 184 (and possibly also N = 228), explains why superheavy elements last longer than predicted. In fact, the mere existence of elements heavier than rutherfordium can be attested to shell effects and the island of stability, as spontaneous fission would rapidly cause such nuclei to disintegrate in a model neglecting such factors.
A 2016 calculation of the half-lives of the isotopes of unbiunium from 290Ubu to 339Ubu suggested that those from 290Ubu to 303Ubu would not be bound and would decay through proton emission, those from 304Ubu through 314Ubu would undergo alpha decay, and those from 315Ubu to 339Ubu would undergo spontaneous fission. Only the isotopes from 309Ubu to 314Ubu would have long enough alpha-decay lifetimes to be detected in laboratories, starting decay chains terminating in spontaneous fission at moscovium, tennessine, or ununennium. This would present a grave problem for experiments aiming at synthesizing isotopes of unbiunium if true, because the isotopes whose alpha decay could be observed could not be reached by any presently usable combination of target and projectile. Calculations in 2016 and 2017 by the same authors on elements 123 and 125 suggest a less bleak outcome, with alpha decay chains from the more reachable nuclides 300–307Ubt passing through unbiunium and leading down to bohrium or nihonium; in particular, 304Ubt could be synthesised in the reaction 249Bk(58Fe,3n)304Ubt and would alpha decay through 300Ubu, 296Uue, and 292Ts to the known 288Mc and 284Nh, though the cross section would likely be extremely low. It has also been suggested that cluster decay might be a significant decay mode in competition with alpha decay and spontaneous fission in the region past Z = 120, which would pose yet another hurdle for experimental identification of these nuclides.
Unbiunium is predicted to be the first element of an unprecedentedly long transition series, called the superactinides in analogy to the earlier actinides. While its behavior is not likely to be very distinct from its lighter congeners in group 3, it is likely to pose a limit to the applicability of the periodic law; after element 121, the 5g, 6f, 7d, and 8p1/2 orbitals are expected to fill up together due to their very close energies, and around the elements in the late 150s and 160s, the 9s, 9p1/2, and 8p3/2 subshells join in, so that the chemistry of the elements just beyond 121 and 122 (the last for which complete calculations have been conducted) is expected to be so similar that their position in the periodic table would be purely a formal matter. Like its lighter congeners, unbiunium could be considered to begin the 7d series of elements, which would be the fifth row of the transition metals.
Based on the Aufbau principle, one would expect the 5g subshell to begin filling at unbiunium. However, the f-block is theoretically expected to begin at lanthanum and actinium, but neither element shows significant f-orbital involvement. It is predicted that a similar situation of delayed "radial" collapse might happen for unbiunium, so that the 5g orbitals do not start filling until around element 125. This is similar to the situation with lanthanum, where the 4f shell has not yet undergone the sudden contraction and lowering in energy to the level it will have in the lanthanide series; even in the next element, cerium, this contraction is not yet complete enough to avoid occupation of the 5d orbital. The delay in the contraction of the 5g orbitals is expected to be so large that occupation of the 6f, 7d, and 8p1/2 subshells cannot be avoided in any superactinide. Because of the lack of radial nodes in the 5g orbitals, analogous to the 4f but not the 5f orbitals, the position of unbiunium in the periodic table is expected to be more akin to that of lanthanum than that of actinium among its congeners, and some have proposed to rename the superactinides as "superlanthanides" for that reason. The lack of radial nodes in the 4f orbitals contribute to their core-like behavior in the lanthanide series, unlike the more valence-like 5f orbitals in the actinides; however, the relativistic expansion and destabilization of the 5g orbitals should partially compensate for their lack of radial nodes and hence smaller extent.
While the lighter group 3 elements fill d-orbitals (Sc, [Ar] 3d1 4s2; Y, [Kr] 4d1 5s2; La, [Xe] 5d1 6s2; Ac, [Rn] 6d1 7s2), unbiunium is expected to fill the 8p1/2 orbital instead due to its relativistic stabilization, with a configuration of [Og] 8s2 8p1. Nevertheless, the expected [Og] 7d1 8s2 configuration is expected to be a low-lying excited state at only 0.412 eV. The electron configurations of the ions of unbiunium are expected to be Ubu+, [Og]8s2; Ubu2+, [Og]8s1; and Ubu3+, [Og]. The 8p electron of unbiunium is expected to be very loosely bound, so that its predicted ionization energy of 4.45 eV is lower than that of ununennium (4.53 eV) and all known elements except for the alkali metals from potassium to francium. A similar dramatic reduction in ionization energy is also seen in lawrencium, another element having an anomalous s2p configuration instead of the expected ds2 due to relativistic effects.
Despite the change in electron configuration, unbiunium is not expected to behave chemically very differently from its lighter congeners. A 2016 calculation on unbiunium monofluoride (UbuF) showed similarities between the valence orbitals of unbiunium in this molecule and those of actinium in actinium monofluoride (AcF); in both molecules, the highest occupied molecular orbital is expected to be non-bonding, unlike in the superficially more similar nihonium monofluoride (NhF) where it is bonding. Nihonium has the electron configuration [Rn] 5f14 6d10 7s2 7p1, with an s2p valence configuration. Unbiunium may hence be somewhat like lawrencium in that its anomalous s2p configuration does not affect its chemistry: the bond dissociation energies, bond lengths, and polarizabilities of the UbuF molecule are expected to continue the trend down group 3. Hence lawrencium and unbiunium are expected to be similar to lutetium and actinium respectively, and not thallium and nihonium as would be expected from looking at their electron configurations. The Ubu–F bond is expected to be strong and polarized, just like for the lighter group 3 monofluorides.
Analogous to its lighter congeners, the non-bonding electrons on unbiunium in UbuF are expected to be able to bond to extra atoms or groups, resulting in the formation of the unbiunium trihalides UbuX3, analogous to ScX3, YX3, LaX3, and AcX3. Hence, the main oxidation state of unbiunium in its compounds should be +3, although the closeness of the valence subshells' energy levels may permit higher oxidation states, just like in elements 119 and 120. The standard electrode potential for the Ubu3+/Ubu couple is predicted as −2.1 V.
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