The naming of the atomic element 113 as "nihonium" by Japanese researchers signals a landmark achievement providing a breath of fresh air for Japan in the discovery and synthesis of new elements, which has been dominated by European and U.S. researchers. Nihonium comes from "Nihon," which means Japan, and Japanese researchers have proposed the symbol "Nh" for the new element.
The short-lived synthetic element is unlikely to immediately produce any beneficial effects, but still, the synthesis of a new element, which is very difficult, can be described as a culmination of Japan's technological strength.
The element was synthesized by a team led by Japan's Riken research institute in Wako, Saitama Prefecture. On Feb. 19, about 50 days after the team was given the right to name the new element, some 20 researchers from organizations across the country who had taken part in related experiments gathered at the Riken institute. Their task was to decide on a name for the element.
Group director Kosuke Morita, 59, told the assembled researchers, "I want to choose a name underscoring the fact that it's an element made in our country," and urged them to come up with suggestions. A leading candidate was "japonium," which would enable non-Japanese to easily make the connection with Japan. But the suggestion was dismissed over its association with "Jap," which is seen as a slur against Japanese. Other suggestions were made but after about an hour, they settled on "nihonium."
"It was the result of the combined effort of many researchers, and the name was chosen democratically," one participant said, adding, "I was excited to be there at that historic moment."
The discovery or synthesis of a new element had been a longtime dream of Japanese researchers. In 1908, Masataka Ogawa, who worked at Tohoku Imperial University, announced during a study in Britain that he had discovered the 43rd element, and named it "Nipponium." It was initially listed in the periodic table, but it later turned out that the element was in fact the 75th atomic element. Though Ogawa's discovery was new, a U.S. team had already chosen the name Rhenium for the 75th element by the time the mistake was realized.
Around 1939, a group led by Riken researcher Yoshio Nishina tried to synthesize the 93rd element but they were unsuccessful.
On the hopes of "third time lucky," a Riken team started experiments in September 2003 to find the 113th element, which had still not been discovered at that time. They bombarded an isotope of bismuth, the 83rd element, with an isotope of zinc, the 30th element, at high speed, trying to fuse the particles, but if the collision was too strong, the particles would break apart, and if it was too weak, they wouldn't fuse. Ten months later, in July 2004, they achieved success for the first time. Their second successful attempt came in April 2005, and their third attempt, proving that synthesis was successful, followed in August 2012. Over nine years of experiments, researchers initiated some 360 trillion collisions.
During this time, a Russian-U.S. team announced the high-volume production of the 113th element using a different method. But as the Riken team proved synthesis by indicating the breakdown of the new element into separate elements, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) granted the Japanese team the naming rights.
Yamagata University professor Fuyuki Tokanai, a nuclear physicist who took part in the research, commented, "I had confidence in the methods and quality of our experiments, but I was worried that the naming rights would be snatched away from us by the Russian-U.S. team." Morita said that each year during his New Year's visit to a shrine he would throw 113 yen into the offering box.
Nihonium breaks down in roughly 0.002 seconds, so it's unlikely it will be of use in everyday life. But former IUPAC President Kazuyuki Tatsumi, a specially appointed professor at Nagoya University, commented, "The periodic table listing of an element produced in Japan will give great stimulus to Japanese junior high and high school students studying chemistry. The effect of there being an increase in young people going on to conduct research is worth everything."