New chemical element found

Well, element 117, which has the titular name of “ununseptium”, was actually discovered by a team of Russians and Americans four years ago, and has been submitted for recognition as an “official element,” but its creation was just replicated by a group in Darmstadt, Germany, and that should speed its acceptance. The new discovery and its implications are described in a piece by Clara Moscowitz in Scientific American

It’s amazing what physicists go through to make this stuff, but it had a fortuitious outcome:

To create 117, with the temporary periodic table placeholder name ununseptium, the researchers smashed calcium nuclei (with 20 protons apiece) into a target of berkelium (97 protons per atom). The experiment was so difficult in part because berkelium itself is tough to come by. “We had to team up with the only place on the planet where berkelium can be produced and isolated in significant quantities,” Düllmann says. That place is the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which has a nuclear reactor that can create the rare element with a half-life of 330 days. It took the facility about two years to build up a large enough stock of berkelium for the experiment; when about 13 milligrams had accumulated, Oak Ridge scientists shipped it off to Germany for the next stage of the project. At GSI, researchers accelerated calcium ions to 10 percent light-speed and sent them colliding into the berkelium. If a calcium and berkelium nucleus collided head-on, occasionally the two nuclei would stick together, fusing to form a new element with a combined total of 117 protons. “We get about one atom per week,” Düllmann says.

One atom per week! It’s a triumph of our species that we can get one atom per week and then get enough of that stuff to identify it!

Now, as is usual for these trans-uranium elements, its half-life is very short: 0.05 seconds, but it’s identified by looking for the elements it forms upon decay: in this case (after several decays), lawrencium 266. That’s a new form of lawrencium (Lr, characterized by its 103 protons), for up to now the most common form of Lr was the 262 isotope, with 159 protons and half-life of 3.6 hours. Lawrencium-266, in contrast, has 163 protons and a half life of 11 hours. This has been seen as a confirmation of physicist’s predictions:

“Perhaps we are at the shore of the island of stability,” [Christoph] Düllmann says. [Düllmann led the German collaboration.]
No one knows for sure where this island lies, or even if it exists at all. Theory suggests that the next magic numbers beyond those known are around 108, 110 or 114 protons, and 184 neutrons. These configurations, according to calculations, could lead to special properties that allow atoms to survive much longer than similar species. “All existing data for elements 116, 117 and 118 do confirm that lifetimes increase as one goes closer to the neutron number 184, says theorist Witold Nazarewicz of Oak Ridge, who was not involved in the study. “This is encouraging.”

Well, I can’t say I understand the “island of stability” business at all (click the words in bold for more info), but perhaps one of our physics readers can explain that theory—if it’s not too arcane for general consumption.

Reporting from mid-book, Professor Ceiling Cat, Chicago.

h/t: Blue


  1. eric
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    perhaps one of our physics readers can explain that theory

    The very quick and dirty version is: remember in your High School chemistry class how electons exist in shells, and when they fill up a shell, the whole tends to be more stable and less reactive? That’s why Helium and Argon don’t react; they have full electron shells. Nuclei in a nucleus behave in an analogous manner: full shell means longer half-lives or even more isotopes that are stable, and we expect closed-shell like effects around the “island of stability.”

    NB 1: I am ignoring a lot of other details about nuclear structure here for brevity. The situation is more complicated than I make it out to be, but I think that will give you the basic picture.

    NB 2: keep in mind that “stable” is a relative term here. I don’t think anyone expects the isotopes “on the island” to be truly stable (as in: non-radioactive). But they should have longer half-lives.

    Congrats to all three teams (US, German, Russian). Great work. The odd elements are a very tough accomplishment.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      strongly resisting my noble gas joke.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted May 7, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

        Not that strongly, I’ll bet… 😉

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 8, 2014 at 4:30 am | Permalink

      The TL;DR version:

      Specifically here, the “magic numbers” come out of the shell model, which is like the electron shell model. It looks at the particle’s (nucleons vs electrons) energy levels in a bounded system where the quantum property of the Pauli exclusion principle holds.

      [Note that these models are incomplete descriptions though, cmp Rydberg states for electrons and the inability to predict the nucleus’ electric and magnetic moments or configurations of excited nuclei; ]

      The “island of stability” comes out of two consistent predictions.

      First, and this is confirmed, is the prediction that the mostly stable continent of elements we know of eventually reach a shore where the nucleus is unstable. This is because the “drip line” that one article speaks of, of neutrons but also protons, aren’t quite linear. To keep stability, as the nucleus grows in atomic number, number of protons, it needs a growing excess of neutrons.

      Eventually the neutron drip line meets the proton drip line. Unless I am mistaken the respective energy differences (effective binding energies) between neutrons and protons that keep the nucleus stable becomes the same, and adding more nucleons don’t affect stability – you can’t make the nucleons beyond that crossing stable. [ ; ]

      Second, because of “magic numbers”, there is a putative first more stable “island” located not far from ‘the shore of stability’.* Perhaps near enough to reach by nuclear physics processes making higher number nuclei.

      *I intuit that more distant nearer-to-stability islands become more and more dispersed, but I haven’t checked that.

  2. NewEnglandBob
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink


    Is neutron number 184 the singularity?

    Where does the quantum conciousness get involved?

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

      Deepakium? Choprium?

      Excuse me, but I need to go throw up.

  3. Posted May 7, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    “Island of stability” is to do with the spacing of the energy levels of the nucleons in the nucleus. Since the energy levels are not equally spaced, some combinations of neutrons/protons can be more stable than if the spacing were even. Thus there can be an “island of stability” beyond the point where you’d expect everything to be unstable.

    … for up to now the most common form of Lr was the 262 isotope, with 159 protons and half-life of 3.6 hours. Lawrencium-266, in contrast, has 163 protons and a half life of 11 hours.

    You mean neutrons (not protons) I think?

    • Aaron H.
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      That’s what I was thinking. If they had different numbers of protons, that would make them different elements, unless I’m missing something.

      • Steve Gerrard
        Posted May 7, 2014 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

        Quite right. The number of protons establishes which element it is; the number of neutrons establishes which isotope it is.

  4. Stephen Barnard
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Next up: unobtainium

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      Where can I get some?

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted May 7, 2014 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know. I’ve looked all over and I can’t find it anywhere.

        • Andrew
          Posted May 7, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

          I hear you can get a plate of it at Milliways.

      • Kevin
        Posted May 7, 2014 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        Right now, only at the movies with blue people in them.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted May 8, 2014 at 12:51 am | Permalink

          The Smurfs mine unobtainium?

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted May 8, 2014 at 7:07 am | Permalink


            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted May 8, 2014 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

              I had to Google that. Thankfully.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted May 8, 2014 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

                I’ve been making Gargamel jokes here all week. I guess no one was a Smurfs watcher in the 80s. 😀

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted May 8, 2014 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

                I didn’t turn ‘Top of Pops’ off fast enough one day. Fortunately, the gas was off that evening, so my instinctive reaction to scoop my eyeballs out with a red-hot teaspoon was slowed enough for my mind to regain control.
                It was a nasty shock, but these days I can contemplate Smurfs (in the abstract[*]) for up to several seconds and experience no more than an irresistible urge to feed them into a mincer.
                [*] An old joke that I was reminded of yesterday : “I prefer Agassiz in the abstract, not in the concrete”
                (The statue is of “fish and glaciers man”, Louis Agassiz ; it was on the frontage of the Zoology building at Uni. Calif. Stanford until the 1905 earthquake. It needed surprisingly little repair.)

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted May 8, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

                Love the photo and accompanying joke!

          • Latverian Diplomat
            Posted May 8, 2014 at 9:05 am | Permalink

            Blue people is necessary but not sufficient. The Kree don’t have unobtainium either.

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted May 8, 2014 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

              When those comics came out in Britain, the only colour was on the covers, and that was less than consistent. I’d forgotten the Kree were blue.

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      Forget that. I want some Adamantium!

    • Harrison
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

      Professor Ceiling Cat could and arguably should make a joke about Hassium, since it’s a real element.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted May 8, 2014 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

        Maybe it’ll be too much hassle?

  5. dbgb1986
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Let me just say that you are awesome, as is your blog. This is why i follow your work! there’s always something interesting and relevant. Keep up the good work!

  6. Greg Esres
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    “shore of the island of stability,” ”

    I had assumed that all new elements would be unstable, so this is a surprise. If we found a stable atom with a huge atomic number, what would be the implications if we could actually make sheets of the stuff? Would it be very heavy?

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      There are a couple of science fiction stories out there somewhere with this, or something like it, as a premise.

      On a lighter (ha ha!) note, anyone who hasn’t already seen this will be amused by it.

      • JohnJay
        Posted May 7, 2014 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

        Speaking of SciFi, there is that UFO lore whereby Bob Lazar, who supposedly worked at area 51 and got booted out, wrote a book and spilled secrets: He said that they reverse-engineered the Roswell crashed UFO and found it was powered by a stable element 118.

        • Chris
          Posted May 8, 2014 at 2:53 am | Permalink

          Please excuse my somewhat beginner-y atomic physics, but don’t you get power from the unstable stuff?

          • Posted May 8, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

            Unless what was meant that 118ium was used in a compound. I would guess it is pretty reactive to fluorine, given that heavy nobel gases make fluorides.

            Of course, the above is an example of rationalizing the misinformed or stupid, so …

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 8, 2014 at 12:58 am | Permalink

      Would it be very heavy?

      Almost certainly. The main reason that uranium (depleted or not) is used for the heads of munitions is because of it’s density. It’s almost the same as gold and tungsten.
      OTOH, just because the atoms are heavy doesn’t preclude it forming gaseous compounds – a lot of uranium enrichment is done using gaseous uranium hexafluoride, which must be a real interesting material to play with. In several senses of “interesting”.

    • eric
      Posted May 8, 2014 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      The ‘stable’ in island of stability is a relative term. I think most of the physicists and chemists working on this topic expect the half-lives of these elements to be several orders of magnitude longer than the half-lives of nearby transactinide elments. So, maybe seconds, minutes, or in extreme case days instead of milliseconds.

      One irony (which the scientists working the problem are well aware of) is that if the half-life of one of these new elements is much longer than expected, the probability of them detecting it goes way down. For example, the particular setup used in the 117 discovery experiment was designed to detect particles with half-lives no longer than days. And of course if you produce somethnig which is completely stable (i.e., not radioactive at all), then you simply won’t detect it via experiments like these, because they look for decays.

      This area is a great example of how theorists and experimentalists work together at an “edge of science” (where our best understanding is still somewhat inaccurate) to expand human knowledge. Theorists predict half-lives, which helps experimentalists design experiments with the highest chance of success. Then the experimentalists measure the actual half-lives, and theorists use this data to build more accurate models.

      • Posted May 8, 2014 at 9:38 am | Permalink

        On the other hand, one can predict chemical reactivity, and see if the newly synthesized element behaves chemically like one would expect. In this case, 117 is a new halogen – presumably.

        • Stephen P
          Posted May 8, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

          Tricky if one only has a handful of atoms to work with.

        • eric
          Posted May 8, 2014 at 11:46 am | Permalink

          Well, you have to find a way to perform a chemistry experiment when your sample is 1E-20 gram and lasts at best a few seconds. Oh, and comes out of the accelerator in a cloud consisting of millions of times that amount of ‘contaminants’ (i.e., other atoms that may screw up your chemistry). Its hard to do. Not impossible, but hard. 🙂

          One interesting wrinkle is that with Z’s that high, you could get relativistic effects which would mean our standard periodic table could be wrong about how the outermost electron shells are arranged (in these atoms). So while its probably a decent bet that 118 would be “noble,” nobody is 100% sure.

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted May 8, 2014 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

            Hard to do, but they did it. I recall reading at the time of publication of time-of flight studies in a 100+ element where they made reasonable inferences about the chemistry of the atoms involved. Unfortunately, that was before names had been argued over for these elements, and I forget which one it was. From the dates (1996), I infer that it was probably Copernicium, as I held a subscription to Nature at about that time. But I’m not 100% sure.

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted May 8, 2014 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

              Incidentally, they can get the multi-billion-fold concentration of the stream of newly manufactured atoms relatively easily by applying mass spectrometry-like filtering to the output beam from the impact chamber.
              “Relatively easily.” One of these days I’m probably going to have to get to grips with the mass spectrometry division of my employers. It’ll happen one day, I’m sure, but I don’t feel the need to chase it. I’ve spent long enough getting away from gas chromatography.

              • Posted May 8, 2014 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

                On a not-entirely tangential note, I’m currently kludging together a high-resolution and rather versatile spectrograph-type apparatus for camera color profiling. From the way things are going, it looks like I’m going to wind up with a lab-grade setup from off-the-shelf camera equipment and under $10 of stuff you can get from your office supply and hardware stores. But I’m still in the midst of things, so I could well be setting myself up for epic fail, but there’s no signs of such yet. Fraunhofer lines are crisp and plentiful….


              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted May 10, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

                The time-consuming pleasure is in the calibration. And in getting a reliable spectrum. From a $10 component. Or using software to correct for shift. And scale.

              • Posted May 11, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

                You ain’t joking about the calibration — and, especially in this case, since the whole point of the exercise is to create an ICC color profile of a camera, itself a variation on the calibration theme.

                I finished the collimator yesterday, and made a few snapshots of a spectrum. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to work with it.

                The diffraction grating is cut from a 6″ x 12″ sheet of cheap plastic diffraction grating. Of course, it comes with no efficiency data…but I’ve got plenty of it that I should be able to do a variation on the double monochromator theme to get the difference in output with and without the second grating.

                And I’ve got an i1 Pro spectrophotometer that I can use to get reference readings from for both the illuminant and the diffuser. (The latter, for initial testing, is just a scrap piece of Crane Museo Portfolio Rag paper; I might later instead coat something with barium sulphate powder.)

                Putting it all together, of course, is going to mean plenty of room for compounded errors. But one of the things that I think will work in my favor is that the i1 Pro nominally has only a 10nm resolution (and a 3.33 nm high-resolution mode) and it’s rare for anybody in graphic arts to work with more than 5 nm resolution. As I noted, I’m resolving Fraunhofer lines, so I should have plenty of resolution to spare — and that extra resolution should help in precisely (for this application) locating spectral frequencies. That just leaves getting the precision of the brightness measurements right, which could potentially be a bit of a bitch….


              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted May 13, 2014 at 2:38 am | Permalink

                Brightness measurements … there’s a stable standard? At an affordable price?
                I really think you’d need to do differential measurement between your source and your modified beam. Well, that should be both a lot cheaper and probably more stable.

              • Posted May 13, 2014 at 10:58 am | Permalink

                Well, camera sensors behave close enough to linearly that absolute brightness measurements aren’t critical. Basically, I’ll be adjusting exposure until the scale is “close enough,” and then applying a uniform (small) multiplier to normalize them the rest of the way.

                But that still leaves wide open the question of the relative brightness of different wavelengths…which is kinda the essence of the exercise.

                For that, the i1 Pro spectrophotometer should do the trick. It works both in emissive and reflective modes. I’ll take a reflective reading off the diffuser and an emissive reading from the light source; the two combined will (should) give me the light bouncing off the diffuser and into the collimator — and there’re standard tools to calculate that in a format ready for the ICC color profiling process. At the other end, there’re similar tools to turn the TIFF from the camera into a set of RGB values for however I want to slice up the spectrum…except they’re designed to work with printed charts like a ColorChecker, so I’ve got some Photoshop and similar fudging to do on that front. And then I’ll have to add back in the efficiency losses from the diffraction grating; those I’ll get by doing the difference between a single grating and two gratings.

                At that point, I should have (normalized) absolute color values plus (adjusted) RGB values from the camera, and it’s the job of an ICC profile to map the two together.

                What makes me nervous is all the independent measurements that’re going to get multiplied together. Errors could potentially get magnified in nasty ways; that’s the big question mark.


      • Greg Esres
        Posted May 8, 2014 at 9:45 am | Permalink

        “So, maybe seconds, minutes, or in extreme case days instead of milliseconds. ”

        Ok, this is why science fictions stories instantly lost credibility with me when they involved finding new elements.


  7. Posted May 7, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    I had heard somewhere that black holes are sort of like giant nuclei. Is that true?

    • Kevin
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      I do not know about that. Neutron starts are like giant nuclei.

      It is also possible that tiny black holes exist that have extremely small Schwarzschild radii and they could pass through us all the time, however Hawking Radiation suggests they might evaporate themselves out of existence at any moment.

      • Posted May 7, 2014 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

        Neutron stars– that is probably what I heard about. Thanks.

        • Stephen Barnard
          Posted May 7, 2014 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

          If you’re interested in neutron stars you have to read Robert L. Forward’s Dragon Egg.

          • NoAstronomer
            Posted May 8, 2014 at 6:59 am | Permalink

            Possibly the best science-fiction I ever read.


        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted May 8, 2014 at 4:40 am | Permalink

          Perhaps. Or putative “quark stars” similar to neutron stars but denser yet, or the candidate models of black holes where they are complex and dynamic high order quantum mechanical states.

  8. Filippo
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink


  9. madscientist
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    The “island of stability” simply refers to combinations of the nuclear particles which can actually bind together to form what we would call an element. Of course that element may only last a few femtoseconds but in principle you can at least sometimes determine that the element existed thanks to the decay products. If the element hadn’t been formed then you get very different products which depend on the interaction of the 2 atoms that were smashed together. People have hypothesized that there is a limit to the number of neutrons and protons beyond which you just can’t form anything, but no one has yet come up with a good enough model to show just when this will happen.

    It’s quite impressive that something as massive as a calcium ion can be imbued with enough energy to fuse it with berkelium.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 8, 2014 at 4:42 am | Permalink

      Right, but explicitly this putative island lies _beyond_ the already known large island (continent) of the usual perioic table.

    • eric
      Posted May 8, 2014 at 7:19 am | Permalink

      I’ll quibble a little bit. Every element we know of meets your definition of being on the island of stability (combinations of nuclear etc… that may only last a few femtoseconds). The ‘island of stability’ being talked about here refers specifically to elements and isotopes that may exist around Z=118 and N=178. These are predicted to have relatively long half-lives because of nuclear shell effects.

  10. Kevin
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    It has been suggested that about Z=137 that an electron in the outer shell will spin so fast (relativistically) that it will pull energy from the vacuum. You can check part of the reality of this being true by looking at the solution for Bohr atom and compare with the fine structure constant (~ 1/137).

    With regard to rarity:

    1 gm of gold ~ $40
    1 gm of cocaine ~ $100
    1 gm of heroin ~ $400
    1 gm of Bose-Einstein Condensate atoms ~ $2M
    1 gm of ultra-cold neutrons > $1B
    1 gm of antimatter >> $1B
    1 gm of element 117 ??
    1 gm of neutrinos ~ priceless as neutrinos are supposed to have no mass by the Standard Model; of course controlling and containing them is a different matter

    • Posted May 7, 2014 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      Actually, the observed oscillation of neutrinos means that they really do have mass.

      And I rather suspect a true “fair market value” for the drugs would drop precipitously were it not for the artificially-created black market. Poppies and coca plants grow like weeds, and I don’t think it takes any great chemistry to get the drugs from them.


      • Kevin
        Posted May 7, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

        I agree about the drugs and market value. Uranium, for example, is more common in earth’s crust than Silver, but cost is still 10/0.6, respectively.

        A 10W single mode 532 laser is still >$100k and yet I can buy a computer for <$1k that is more powerful than most supercomputers less than 35 years ago…and that is largely because people across the world love WII/Xbox/PlayStation.

        What we need is every teenager to really want everything to be solar and cars that run on 150 MPG and then we're talking market value with real value.

        • Posted May 8, 2014 at 9:40 am | Permalink

          Common but dispersed – a lot of the “rare elements” are so-called (in retrospect) because they do not form nice ores where you can get a whole lot at once.

        • Posted May 8, 2014 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

          Considering that electric cars are starting to get big in the supercar and luxury car markets, your wish may just start to come true. What teenager woudn’t want a Tesla Roadster or Model S, or BMW’s new electric (whatever it’s called)?


          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted May 9, 2014 at 4:59 am | Permalink

            Teenager? This middle aged woman wants one! My preference is the Tesla roadster.

            • Posted May 9, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

              I wouldn’t turn one down, either — but even the Chevy Volt costs much more than it’s personally worth it for me to spend on any car. (Not to knock the Volt; quite the contrary. It’s right after a Tesla on my fantasy list.)

              What I’m currently planning on doing, though, is getting a VW Karmann Ghia and doing an electric conversion on it. Should cost me about half the price of a Volt (hopefully even less than that), and the end result should be a very peppy classic car with a range comparable to a Leaf or similar non-Tesla all-electric car.


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted May 9, 2014 at 9:56 am | Permalink

                My next car will be a hybrid and if they have one I like, a plug-in hybrid. I figure I got at least 5 more years with my current car (if not more) so I’m hoping technology will be even better by them. Pure electric isn’t good enough for me right now give its limited range. I love the Lexus hybrid.

              • Stephen Barnard
                Posted May 9, 2014 at 10:09 am | Permalink

                I would buy a Tesla Model S tomorrow if I lived in an urban area, but they aren’t practical here, and my lifestyle doesn’t include a luxury sedan. If Tesla made a pickup I’d buy one. I think it’s a great company with a brilliant future, and Elon Musk is an engineering and business genius. (Full disclosure: I own Tesla and Solar City stock.)

              • Posted May 9, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

                I haven’t heard any rumors of a Tesla pickup, but I’d be a bit surprised if they don’t have one on the market a decade from now.

                If Tesla’s planned econobox were on the market today, I’d seriously reconsider my DIY electric Ghia project plans. The DIY project would likely still win…I’m not thrilled with the idea of my car being an Internet appliance as pretty much every car on the market is these days…but the Tesla would be extremely compelling.

                I paid cash for my own rooftop solar array, so Solar City wouldn’t have been the right business model for me. But I’m thrilled that they’re doing so well and I wish all my neighbors would go that route if they don’t want to put their own capital into rooftop solar.


              • Stephen Barnard
                Posted May 9, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

                The Tesla Model S has a range of well over 200 miles, which should be enough for nearly every commuter. They’re installing free supercharging stations all over the US and Europe, and they’re entering the Chinese market with great fanfare. The regular maintenance of a Tesla vehicle is ridiculously cheap and infrequent: No valves, no pistons, no injectors, no fuel pump, no cooling system, no oil, etc. This all comes with outstanding performance and safety. Tesla is investing $5B in a huge battery factory, so the advantage of scale should make their cars cheaper. As it is, they’re selling cars as fast as they can make them. (The resale price of a used Model S in Europe is greater that the price of a new one, because of the waiting list for new cars.) They’re also partnering with Solar City to use these batteries to store excess power in solar installations. Win, win.

              • Posted May 9, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

                Absolutely agreed.

                I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get a 200 mile range out of my DIY Ghia, but that would be plenty to completely do away with any sort of range anxiety on my part. Even half that is rare for me to do in a single day.

                Indeed, the only problem with the Model S…is that it’s a luxury sedan, and priced accordingly. I have no need of a luxury sedan, and can’t even begin to justify spending that much money on a car — any car. But were I in the market for a luxury sedan, I wouldn’t even look at any other car on the road right now.

                I’m looking at doing my DIY Ghia project sometime this year, so I’m pretty much stuck with the batteries that’re on the market right now. But I figure that, by the time the Arizona heat eventually kills those batteries (hopefully not for at least a decade, if I choose wisely), Tesla (and, hopefully, others) will have driven up the technology and down the price to the point that the second battery pack for the Ghia will be relatively inexpensive and give the car a 200+ mile range. Were it not for Tesla, I’d be much less sanguine about that prospect.

                To me, that’s the most important thing that Tesla is doing: showing that there’s great profit to be made in electric vehicles and related technology. You hint at one of those relations in your last sentence. A secondary goal of my project is to use the Ghia’s battery pack as an whole-house electricity backup in the case of emergency. My solar panels generate half again as much electricity as I use (enough to power an electric vehicle, and intentionally sized that way when I signed the contract). The battery in an electric vehicle should be enough to make it through the night, and the excess from the panels should be enough to recharge the battery during the day — at least for a few days.

                When we as a society have enough solar installations and enough electric cars with enough surplus capacity, that basic idea can scale up to reduce the need for baseload generation. If your car has a 200-mile range and you’re comfortable with “only” 100 miles when you go to work in the morning, the car can take a full charge during peak generating hours during the day and then trickle half of that back to the grid during minimum generating hours, with the electricity meters spinning in the suitable directions to keep the accountants happy.


              • Posted May 9, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

                Yeah, the range thing is the biggest problem with electric vehicles right now. I don’t drive much, but, when I do, it’s to places 25 miles away as often as it is to places two miles away. A 50 mile round trip means I’d need at least a 60-mile range at freeway speeds, and probably closer to 75 miles for a comfortable amount of “Murphy factor.” Better still would be a 100-mile range, which would open up the reasonable possibility of trips to places 40 miles away (which would cover almost, but not all, in-town driving). That’s going to take a fuckton of batteries in a lightweight car — which is why I’m looking to the Ghia.

                But if your own daily commute is comfortably within the range of an electric vehicle, that it’s not something suitable for other uses shouldn’t matter. Hang on to your current car for non-commute driving if that’s frequent enough for it to be worthwhile, and consider renting a car for longer trips. There’s a lot to be said for renting a car for cross-country driving, even if your own car is perfectly suited for such.

                …and, of course, it doesn’t make sense for lots of people, and you might be one of those. But it does make sense for lots of people, probably even the majority of people, even though said majority often doesn’t realize that it does.

                And do give the Volt some serious consideration. The first 40-ish miles are all electric; if your round-trip commute is less than that, you may go a year between filling it up at the pump, save for those cross-country trips where it’s got something like a 400-mile range on fully-charged batteries and a full tank.



              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted May 9, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

                The Ford C-Max is a good compromise. It is a plug-in hybrid with a big battery pack. Thing hardly uses gas – you can drive highway speeds on battery. It also requires little maintenance.

              • Posted May 9, 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

                I’m obviously out of the loop; I had to look up the C-Max. Good to see yet another viable plug-in hybrid with not-useless electric range.

                I’m also hoping that the trajectory for plug-in hybrids follows that of “regular” hybrids. Some years ago, the Honda Insight was a radical new concept car, but now hybrids are common and most car buyers would pick the hybrid over the non-hybrid when all else is equal. The same thing seems to be happening with plug-in hybrids, and will hopefully also happen with pure electrics.

                …with so much depending on those damned battery engineers…if only Moore’s Law applied to everything electrical, not just electronics….


              • Stephen Barnard
                Posted May 9, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

                What’s your take on fuel cells? Elon Musk thinks they’re a crock.

              • Posted May 9, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

                The biggest problem with fuel cells today is the question of where the fuel is coming from. If — as is always the case — it’s the same oilfields we’re mining for gasoline, you haven’t done anything meaningful to solve any of the real problems we face. I suppose they might offer some minor efficiency enhancements, which would always be useful, but I’m not aware of any commercially-viable models that can handle the level of contaminants typically found in vehicular fuel.

                The best bet I see for fuel cells would be at utility scales. Either use them as batteries for load leveling (run them in reverse to generate fuel during periods of excess generation and then forwards to generate electricity during periods of excess demand) or to generate feedstocks for liquid hydrocarbon fuels to be used elsewhere in conventional engines. Or maybe for remote or backup electricity generation via natural gas or the like, instead of a diesel generator. The thing is, I’m not aware that fuel cells have efficiencies that’re competitive with other alternatives already being developed for those sorts of applications.

                If there’re technological breakthroughs that propel fuel cells into viability, I’ll cheer and shout and even think about buying one. I just don’t see any reason to stock up on champagne, let alone reach for the cork puller, is all.


              • Stephen Barnard
                Posted May 9, 2014 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

                Toyota is betting on them.

              • Posted May 9, 2014 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

                Well, if they can pull it off, all the more power to ’em. Toyota’s got a lot of smart engineers; if anybody can do it, they can.

                It’s not how I’d roll the dice; as I noted, as long as the fuel for the cell is being mined, it’s not a long-term solution. But maybe it’ll have a place as a transition technology, and maybe what they learn about getting power out of a fuel cell will translate to running it backwards to make liquid fuel from a clean electricity source (like solar). We’re still going to need liquid fuels for aircraft and rail engines and various other types of machinery, at least for a long time.

                It’s good to have that type of competition. Don’t know that I’d root for one over the other, but I do know how I’d bet: first on a vehicle with an electric motor no matter how the motor gets its electricity, and then on it getting said electricity over a wire plugged into the wall. The convenience and cleanliness of electric charging at home, of always starting the day with a full charge and not having to go out of your way to pump smelly and messy liquid fuel…that’s going to win out over reduced range, so long as the range is more than enough for a day’s worth of (non-trip) driving.

                And Tesla has the right idea with the 200-mile range and a supercharger network. 200 miles at 65 MPH is three hours; most people are going to want to take a break from driving every three hours anyway. Make it a rest stop with a restaurant and a WiFi espresso bar, and you’re good to go.


    • Filipe
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      No, we have known for quite some time (a few years) that neutrinos do have mass.

      • Kevin
        Posted May 7, 2014 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

        Neutrino oscillations are basically confirmed -> which, though QM implies they have mass due to mixing. However classical Standard Model not only does not predict them, it prohibts them from having mass, at least, as far as I was taught.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted May 8, 2014 at 4:48 am | Permalink

          Seems odd, since the neutrino mixing angle [ ] is analogous to the quark mixing of the SM.

          Don’t you mean that angle is a sign of a CP symmetry breaking (in addition to the small CP symmetry breaking the SM already do IIRC, perhaps from the quark mixing)? See above link.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 8, 2014 at 4:56 am | Permalink

      Spin? Don’t you mean “orbit”, since the electron spin is constant (1/2)?

      The angular momentum may go relativistic, I dunno. But that doesn’t “pull energy” from the vacuum. (How does that work? But see below, maybe that is the meaning:)

      As a comparison, already nucleons have relativistic quarks. That is why a nucleon has many more than the three valence quarks. The other quarks appear and disappear as pair creation and recombination from relativistic particles moving near other masses (particles)/in bound systems, making up the relativistic mass which is the bulk of the nucleon’s mass. (See e.g. Strassler’s blog Of Particular Significance, his articles on nucleons.)

      • Kevin
        Posted May 8, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        Yeah I did mean orbit, definitely not spin (sorry Dirac!).

        I remember, vaguely something about sea-quarks. I used to think the professor meant C-quarks…whoa, a new quark!? I was totally wankered when it came to advanced QM. That is why I do experiment and not theory.

        And I cannot remember the exactly, but v_electron/c ~ Z*alpha (fine structure constant). So when Z=137, v/c -> 1; which cannot happen. If the electron does not pull stuff out of the vacuum, synchrotron radiation should come off. Alas, I am no holding my breath for Z=137.

    • eric
      Posted May 8, 2014 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      I am not sure it matters; IIRC nuclear stability models predict an edge at around Z=130. Heavier nuclei are expected to break up as fast as they form, no matter how many neutrons you add. At least, until some other fundamental force comes into play (like gravity for neutron stars).

    • eric
      Posted May 8, 2014 at 7:40 am | Permalink

      If you are a legitimate scientific research institute, you can probably buy artificial actinides like the Berkelium target used in the 117 experiment. My SWAG tells me that that it would probably cost you in the range of $10-100M/gm range.

      I base that on Wikipedia numbers: 22mg of Bk “cost” 250 days of reactor time + 90 days of laboratory time, which probably involved 2-3 PhD’s and some techs. Plus lab equipment costs. I’m ballparking that amount as totalling mid-six to low seven figures. Multiply that by 50 to get cost per gram.

  11. Jon Bagge
    Posted May 8, 2014 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    “up to now the most common form of Lr was the 262 isotope, with 159 protons and half-life of 3.6 hours. Lawrencium-266, in contrast, has 163 protons and a half life of 11 hours”

    Surely you mean neutrons?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 8, 2014 at 3:51 am | Permalink

      Nice catch! See also comment #3.

  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 8, 2014 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    Fun fact:

    Astrobiologists call molybdenum “the Douglas Adams element”.

    Molybdenum is the heart of the mineral carbon/energy metabolic engine of submarine alkaline hydrothermal emergence of life. And its atomic number is 42 – the answer to the “ultimate question of life, the universe and everything”. [ ]

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 8, 2014 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      Hmmm, I knew that Mo does interesting things in catalysis, both in hydrothermal settings and in metabolism, and that dotted lines had been drawn by origin-of-life researchers connecting those facts.
      I hadn’t actually clocked that Mo is Z=42. I shall have to incorporate that into my FSM ritual mumbo jumbo. 42 (*n) strands of spaghetti ; 42g sounds a good weight for a meatball ; could I get the spice (etc) count up to 42 in the sauce?

      • Posted May 8, 2014 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

        I know Mo is frequently used in suitable proportions with Cr and C in an Fe alloy for bicycle frames. If you’re at all handy with a forge, you could get a scrap chromoly bike frame and turn it into cutlery and other assorted utensils for the ritualistic feast. Considering the industrial setting you work in, there may well be other examples of 41XX or similar steels around…though I’m sure you’ll take suitable caution to only “salvage” that which isn’t actually being used or would be used in the case of fecal contamination of the atmospheric impellers….


        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted May 10, 2014 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

          I like to take things to the limit. So, I’d start from pure Mo.
          To my (slight) surprise … someone on ebaY sells plates of what they claim are 4x9Mo.
          I must investigate further. And since I’ve been bumped for a week … I’ll get onto it! (After gold-panning and fish-hunting.)

          • Posted May 11, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

            I’ve heard Mo called lots of thins, but “pure” ain’t one of them. Still, I have some relatives who live in Nixa, and could probably ship you a piece of Mo, cheap as dirt…literally….


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