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Editorial: Discovery of new element demonstrates Japan's scientific capabilities

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry has recognized that the government-affiliated Riken research institute had discovered the new element 113.

    The discovery of the new element marks a first for Asia. Since the discoverer of a new element is granted the right to name the element, a new Japanese name for element 113 will be placed on the periodic table of the elements that are commonly carried in school science textbooks. The discovery has demonstrated Japan's high science capacity and should be hailed.

    No heavier element than uranium, whose atomic number is 92, exists in nature. The only elements heavier than uranium have been produced through artificial composition. So far, only researchers in Europe and North American have been granted the right to name a new element. Riken and a U.S.-Russia joint research team, which had earlier announced that it had discovered element 113, had competed in acquiring the right to name the element.

    Riken's experiments to produce element 113 began in September 2003. In the experiments, researchers made the atomic nuclei of zinc, whose atomic number is 30, collide with those of bismuth, whose atomic number is 83, using an accelerator, in attempts to make them fuse together, and were successful in producing three components of element 113 between September 2004 and August 2012.

    The U.S.-Russia team had reported seven months earlier than Riken that it had discovered element 113. Nevertheless, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry recognized that Riken was the discoverer of the element because the quality of its experiments was quite high.

    The Riken research team produced element 113 and clarified the detailed process of the element decaying into already known elements. The team had developed equipment that can separate element 113 from other elements in advance.

    The U.S.-Russian team claimed that it artificially composed element 115 and confirmed element 113 in the process of the element 115 decaying. However, the international union deemed the team's claim was not sufficiently proven.

    The Riken team's strategy of directly producing element 113 as well as its precise observation technology, including the detection equipment it produced, led to its latest feat.

    Japanese researchers had come close to discovering new elements in the past. In 1908, Dr. Masataka Ogawa, who served as president of Tohoku Imperial University, the predecessor of Tohoku University, announced that he had found element 43, but this was incorrect. It subsequently turned out that what he actually found was element 75. Dr. Yoshio Nishina at Riken also conducted experiments to produce element 93 using an accelerator, but was unable to confirm whether he was successful in producing the element. As such, the discovery of a new element had been a century-long earnest wish for Japan's scientific community.

    Riken took about nine years to conduct experiments to produce element 113 and spent approximately 300 million yen in electricity fees to use the accelerator to increase the speed of the atomic nuclei of zinc to 10 percent of the speed of light.

    The discovery of a new element does not bring any direct benefits to people's livelihoods. Therefore, there may be debate on how much money should be invested in such basic research. However, it is an important mission for natural science to bring new knowledge to human beings. The improvement of basic research also leads to human resource development and new technological development.

    The Riken team is poised to continue its quest for new elements. It is hoped that the team will see more success.

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