Here’s how the periodic table gets new elements

From discovery to confirmation and naming, the path is rarely simple

Element character illustration

For would-be elements, the road to the periodic table is long, hard, at times pedantic and quite dramatic.

Dani Nunes

It’s not every day an element gets added to the periodic table. The last time it happened was 2016, when four new elements became official.  

For these elements, reaching the table was an epic quest spanning more than a decade. It required rare radioactive ingredients, violent atom smashing, painstaking detection, a mountain of paperwork and a fair amount of waiting before the elements became undisputed champions. But in the end, the newcomers made it into the canon that governs chemistry, filling out the periodic table’s seventh row.

Today, scientists continue pushing the table to its limits, as they hunt for the next elements. It’s too soon to say when element 119 or 120 might enter the spotlight. But the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAC and IUPAP), which evaluate new element claims, have set out key steps and guidelines for becoming an element. So we know a thing or two about what it will take.

Follow the journey in the video below. It may be a long and arduous process, but when you break it down, getting a spot on the periodic table has all the excitement and drama of a reality TV singing competition.

Wondering how an element ends up on the periodic table? Let us explain.

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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