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In honour of scientist and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), the discovering team around Professor Sigurd Hofmann suggested the name copernicium with the element symbol Cp for the new element 112, discovered at the GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung (Center for Heavy Ion Research) in Darmstadt. It was Copernicus who discovered that the Earth orbits the Sun, thus paving the way for our modern view of the world. Thirteen years ago, element 112 was discovered by an international team of scientists at the GSI accelerator facility. A few weeks ago, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, IUPAC, officially confirmed their discovery. In around six months, IUPAC will officially endorse the new element's name. This period is set to allow the scientific community to discuss the suggested name copernicium before the IUPAC naming.
"After IUPAC officially recognized our discovery, we – that is all scientists involved in the discovery – agreed on proposing the name copernicium for the new element 112. We would like to honor an outstanding scientist, who changed our view of the world", says Sigurd Hofmann, head of the discovering team.
Copernicus was born 1473 in Torun; he died 1543 in Frombork, Poland. Working in the field of astronomy, he realized that the planets circle the Sun. His discovery refuted the then accepted belief that the Earth was the center of the universe. His finding was pivotal for the discovery of the gravitational force, which is responsible for the motion of the planets. It also led to the conclusion that the stars are incredibly far away and the universe inconceivably large, as the size and position of the stars does not change even though the Earth is moving. Furthermore, the new world view inspired by Copernicus had an impact on the human self-concept in theology and philosophy: humankind could no longer be seen as the center of the world.
With its planets revolving around the Sun on different orbits, the solar system is also a model for other physical systems. The structure of an atom is like a microcosm: its electrons orbit the atomic nucleus like the planets orbit the Sun. Exactly 112 electrons circle the atomic nucleus in an atom of the new element "copernicium".
Element 112 is the heaviest element in the periodic table, 277 times heavier than hydrogen. It is produced by a nuclear fusion, when bombarding zinc ions onto a lead target. As the element already decays after a split second, its existence can only be proved with the help of extremely fast and sensitive analysis methods. Twenty-one scientists from Germany, Finland, Russia and Slovakia have been involved in the experiments that led to the discovery of element 112.
Since 1981, GSI accelerator experiments have yielded the discovery of six chemical elements, which carry the atomic numbers 107 to 112. The discovering teams at GSI already named five of them: element 107 is called bohrium, element 108 hassium, element 109 meitnerium, element 110 darmstadtium, and element 111 is named roentgenium.
It is suggested that poisoning by polonium-210 may have caused the death of Alexander Litvinenko, said to be a former Russian spy, in November 2006. Following his death at the end of November 2006, traces of polonium were found at several places he had visited before becoming ill. Before his death it was thought that thallium, or even radiothallium, might have been the cause of his illness. At the time of writing it is not clear who killed him, but not surprisingly the Russians deny it. Polonium-210 decays through the emission of α-particles and these emissions are noramlly easy to stop, but they are very dangerous if the polonium is inside the body.
Polonium is radioactive and present only in extremely low abundances in the environment. It is quite metallic in nature despite its location beneath oxygen in the periodic table. It is made in very small quantities through a nuclear reaction of bismuth. Neutron irradiation of 209bismuth (atomic number 83) gives 210polonium (atomic number 84).
209Bi + 1n → 210Po + e-
Polonium-210, 210Po, transmutes into the lead isotope 206Pb by the emission of an α-particle. The half life for this process is just over 138 days meaning that after 138 days one-half of the original 210Po has disappeared and after 2 times 138 days 3/4 has gone.
21084Po → 20682Pb + 42He
The short half life of polonium-210 and the heat generated with the above radioactive decay means that polonium metal generates considerable heat (141 W), meaning that the metal and its compounds self-heat. This is a useful property and polonium can be used as a small heat source (if expensive!). It can be used in space satellites for this purpose and is especially desirable as there are no moving parts. It was also used in the lunar rovers to keep internal parts warm during the frigid lunar nights.
Polonium metal is unique in that it is the only element whose structure (known as the α-form) is a simple cubic array of atoms in which each atom is surrounded by six other polonium atoms. On gentle warming to 36°C, this converts into a second form known as the β-form.
Polonium dissolves in acids to form pink hydrated Po(II), presumably as[Po(OH2)6]2+. This seems to oxidize to yellow Po(IV) species perhaps as a consequence of oxidizing agents produced through the α-particle induced decay of water. The polonium(II) oxide PoO is known but this oxidizes easily to the Po(IV) oxide PoO2.
There are few crystallographically characterised polonium compounds largely because not many researchers work with polonium and the difficulties associated with characterising such radioactive compounds. The 14-electron polonium(IV) anion [PoI6]2– is strictly octahedral meaning the lone pair is sterochemically inactive.