Move Over Element 117, Iron Man’s Fusing Nuclei
Jun04

Move Over Element 117, Iron Man’s Fusing Nuclei

I recently went to see “Iron Man 2” despite all the reviews telling me that it’s just so-so. Well, I, too, thought it wasn’t as good as the first movie in the franchise, but I’m glad I went. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten to see Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) make a new chemical element on the big screen. Spoiler alert: For those who haven’t seen the film and actually care, I’m going to tell you something about the plot line. Since we last saw him, Iron Man’s been busy building more supersuits, erecting theme parks to himself, and improving the arc reactor in his chest. The reactor keeps him alive and simultaneously powers his exoskeletal suit (technology Newscripts has written about before). Unfortunately, it also uses palladium, which is somehow slowly getting into Stark’s bloodstream and poisoning him at the same time. If I had a nickel for every time that’s happened to me … So what’s a supergenius to do? Well, Stark says he’s tried all the other elements in the periodic table to no avail. Instead, he thinks outside the, er, table and comes up with the idea to create an entirely new element. In what seems like an afternoon, Stark builds a particle accelerator in his house (although the audience isn’t exactly told that this is what he’s doing). He bombards a target in the accelerator with a high-powered ion beam and then directs the new elemental beam into an upgraded arc reactor for storage. Following this up with a pompous “That was easy,” Stark pops that sucker into his chest and goes on to save the day. To find out how long it might take mere mortals to create a new chemical element, I contacted Dawn A. Shaughnessy, a nuclear chemist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who was also part of the superteam that recently generated element 117. “Based on our recent experiments,” she says, “it took us six months to see six atoms of element 117.” Although the concept of creating a new element is simple—smashing an intense beam of ions into a target where the atomic numbers of each add up to the element you want—the hard part is in the details, Shaughnessy says. The beam of ions requires an accelerator, such as a cyclotron; the targets are typically rare isotopes of radioactive materials that need to be handled with great care; and enormous amounts of collected computer data must be sorted to confirm generation of the new element. “If it was easy, it would be done all the time, rather than every few years at best,” she says. In...

Read More