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The seventh transuranic element to be discovered, einsteinium (element 99) is radioactive and has few uses outside of basic scientific research. Named for the renowned physicist Albert Einstein, it was found in the aftermath of the first hydrogen bomb explosion at Eniwetok Atoll in November 1952.
Scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and other labs have worked hard to uncover its chemical properties. They report in the journal Nature that they have produced a macroscopic sample of the isotope 253 einsteinium, and used it to measure one of its fundamental chemical properties, called bond length. This is an important measurement that tells scientists how einsteinium will react and bind to other elements. The researchers discovered that the element’s bond distance goes against a general trend of the actinide element series, which is a surprise.
To produce the isotope, scientists used a nuclear reactor to bombard curium with neutrons. It takes about four years of irradiation and chemical separation to produce just milligrams (10-3 grams) of the element. It is a metallic, radioactive metal that reacts with oxygen, steam and acids but not alkalis. The isotope has the oxidation level +3 and has a face-centred cubic structure similar to the lanthanide metals europium and ytterbium.
The new findings may help scientists make heavier transuranic elements in the future. “The discovery of einsteinium provides the missing link in understanding how to make yttrium and nobelium, the next two elements in the actinide group,” says the lead researcher.