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Curated by RSF Research Staff

Heavy elements could show the link between Quantum Mechanics and Relativity

Studying exotic elements of the periodic table, Florida State University researchers found a very surprising phenomenon. It seems the heaviest and rarest elements don’t follow the rules of quantum mechanics but instead the theory of relativity of Einstein! This first observation was made on the element Berkelium, Bk on the Periodic Table.

Berkelium is one of the heaviest elements existing in our universe. It doesn’t exist in nature and was produced for the first time by a team working at the University of California, Berkeley, in December 1949. Berkelium's most stable isotope, berkelium-247, has a half-life of about 1,380 years. Since only small amounts of berkelium have ever been produced, there is no known uses for berkelium and its compounds outside of basic scientific research.

Quantum mechanics is used to describe the rules that govern how atoms behave and fully explain the chemical behavior of most of the elements on the table. But recent results are showing that these rules are somewhat overridden by Einstein's Theory of Relativity when it comes to the heavier, lesser known elements of the Periodic Table. A study of compounds out of berkelium drove researchers to observe unusual chemistry.

At the fourth and higher levels, there are seven f orbitals. Counting the 5s, 5p, and 5d orbitals, this makes a total of 16 orbitals in the fifth level. These orbital complicated shapes are shown in this drawing.

The team led by Dr. Albrecht-Schmitt studied the oxidative and reductive processes of berkelium compound. These processes are usually governed in part by the ability of an element to attain inherently stable empty-, half-, and fully-filled electronic configurations. This basic principle offers reliable predictive capabilities that are augmented by additional factors such as crystal- and ligand-field stabilization, relativistic effects, and spin-orbit coupling. However in the case of the berkelium atoms electrons weren't following the normal rules of quantum mechanics. Instead of lining up to face all the same direction, they line up opposite following a relativistic motion. Under the Theory of Relativity, the faster anything with mass moves, the heavier it gets. Because the nucleus of these heavy atoms is highly charged, the electrons start to move very quickly, up to reach significant fractions of the speed of light. This causes them to become heavier than normal, and the rules that typically apply to electron behavior start to break down.

”When you see this interesting phenomenon, you start asking yourself all these questions like how can you make it stronger or shut it down," Albrecht-Schmitt said. "A few years ago, no one even thought you could make a berkelium compound."

Thomas E. Albrecht-Schmitt from Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Tallahassee, Florida

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