The Elusive Nipponium
In the earlier paragraph, I mentioned it was the first time a new element was discovered in Japan. However, there was a time, almost 100 years ago, when the discovery of a new element was reported by a Japanese scientist. Masataka Ogawa, who was studying at University College London at the time (and would later become the president of Tohoku Imperial University), isolated a hitherto unknown element from Sri Lankan mineral thorianite. Presuming it had an atomic weight of about 100, he thought it was the element that would fit the empty 43rd spot of the periodic table. In 1908, following the recommendation of his mentor William Ramsay, Ogawa reported this new element with the name nipponium (and the atomic symbol Np).
Unfortunately though, this discovery could not be confirmed by his scientific peers and none of his students was able to repeat the isolation. The supposed new element nipponium therefore never found a legitimate spot in the periodic table and disappeared into oblivion.
In 2003, in an interesting twist, Professor Kenji Yoshiwara of Tohoku University re-evaluated the record left by Ogawa and found that nipponium actually corresponded to rhenium (having atomic number 75). Rhenium is positioned right below the 43rd spot in the periodic table and has similar properties. If only X-ray spectroscopy had been available to Ogawa back then, he could have characterized his element accurately and the 75th element would have been named nipponium. Ogawa was very close to catching the big fish, but it just slipped out of his hands.
Element 43 in the periodic table is like the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean so to speak, in a sense that many scientific adventurers had to experience shipwreck-like failures as they challenged to claim that spot. A number of discovery attempts and naming proposals, such as polonium and pluranium (Osann, 1828), pelopium (H. Rose, 1845), ilmenium (R. Hermann, 1846), davium (S. Kern, 1877), and lucium (P. Barrière, 1896), were made but all of them turned out to be wrong assignments of other elements. Even the claim by Noddack and his coworkers, who correctly identified rhenium in 1925, to having captured Element 43 as well (they named it masurium) turned out to be erroneous.
The 43rd spot was finally filled in 1937. A minute amount of that elusive element was detected and isolated from the molybdenum-based component of cyclotron. When molybdenum (Element 42) was hit by the deuteron accelerated by cyclotron, it led to the formation of Element 43.
Even though there were more than one candidates when it came to naming it, including panormium (after the old name of Palermo, Italy), the element was eventually named technetium after the Greek word meaning synthetic. After more than a century of twists and turns, Element 43 was finally given an official name.
As most chemists know today, technetium has no stable isotope and thus does not exist in nature (except in outer space, where it has been spectroscopically detected in certain planets). This kind of “a hole in the periodic table” is rare and the 61st promethium is the only other example. For chemists, it was such an unfortunate mischief of the creator.
Of interesting note is that there is a rule that names of the previously proposed but disqualified so-called “phantom elements” cannot be used again for newly discovered elements. For this reason, the new Element 113 cannot be named nipponium, even if it sounds most fitting.
Confusions Caused by Naming Elements
Given its nature, naming elements often creates confusions. After all, the names are to be used for hundreds of years to come and naming them is an utmost honor for scientists. Therefore, there have been a number of disputes in the past over claiming the right to name elements.
Things became particularly tumultuous during the era when the race for the synthesis of transuranium elements (the elements with an atomic weight greater than 92) gained intensity. Since this era happened to overlap the US-Soviet Cold War, the national pride factor added extra heat to the competition for synthesis and naming of new elements. The race for the elements from 104th through 109th became particularly complicated with the participation of German teams and all sides proposing different names. Moreover, there was even an instance in which one of the US teams reported the synthesis of Element 118 in 1999 but the result was soon found to have been fabricated, and the paper was withdrawn three years later.
So, scientists are not given the right to pick a name for their element immediately after reporting its discovery. They must prepare and provide enough proofs and be authorized by the specialized committee, and only after passing through this process naming rights are granted.
It goes back to July of 2004 when Element 113 was synthesized for the first time by colliding bismuth and zinc nuclei (atomic number 83 and 30, respectively). Eleven and half years passed since then before the RIKEN researchers finally got the naming right. The second atom of Element 113 was obtained in April 2005, but struggling days and years continued after that. In August of 2012, the third atom was synthesized and it seems that this data became the conclusive piece of proof. The perseverance and hard work of the people who are involved in the project definitely deserve the respect and recognition.
The Name for Element 113
In the world of science, you can find really fascinating names. For example, since there is essentially no limitation when it comes to naming small planets, there are names like Jodie Foster, Tokyo Giants, and Totoro. In the field of biology, there are genes having names like Harakiri, Sonic Hedgehog, and Musashi, all of which show playfulness of the scientists.
As for chemical elements, however, there are some rules and you can’t just pick any names you like. First, elements that are considered metallic have to have the suffix ium. There is also a tradition that the word root is chosen based on the place of discovery, the name of scientist, property of the element, and mythical names.
Considering that there are many precedents such as americium, francium, and germanium, Element 113 will likely be named after the country of origin. But since nipponium cannot be used as mentioned earlier, names like japonium are reportedly being considered. Rikenium is reportedly another candidate (after RIKEN Institute), but the chance for this one is unclear since RIKEN is not exactly a place.
Many of the transuranium elements are named after scientists. Even though Element 102 and 112 are named nobelium and copernicium, respectively, after Alfred Nobel (chemist) and Nicolaus Copernics (astronomer), most are named after nuclear physicists. In Japan, candidates would probably be the likes of Hideki Yukawa, Hantaro Nagaoka, and Yoshio Nishina.