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Stabilizing shell effects in heaviest elements directly measured

Results will help to pin down the „Island of Stability“



An international research team has succeeded in directly measuring the strength of shell effects in very heavy elements. The results provide information on the nuclear structure of superheavy elements, thus promising to enable drastically improved predictions concerning the location and extension of the island of stability of superheavy elements. Indeed, it is expected that such elements with "magic" numbers of protons and neutrons will profit from enhanced stability due to shell effects, which endow them with long lifetimes. For the present measurements, performed on several isotopes of the elements nobelium und lawrencium, the scientists utilized the Penning trap facility SHIPTRAP at the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt. The results have been published in the renowned Science magazine.

So‐called “superheavy” elements owe their very existence exclusively to shell effects within the atomic nucleus. Without this stabilization they would disintegrate in a split second due to the strong repulsion between their many protons. The constituents of an atomic nucleus, the protons and neutrons, organize themselves in shells. Certain “magic” configurations with completely filled shells render the protons and neutrons to be more strongly bound together.

Long‐standing theoretical predictions suggest that also in superheavy elements, filled proton and neutron shells will give rise to extraordinarily stable and hence long‐lived nuclei: the “Island of stability“. Still, after decades of research, its exact location on the chart of nuclei is a topic of intense discussions and no consensus has yet been reached. While some theoretical models predict a magic proton number to be at element 114, others prefer element 120 or even 126. Another burning question is whether nuclei situated on the island will live “only“ hundreds or maybe thousands or even millions of years. Anyway, all presently known superheavy elements are short‐lived and none have been found in nature yet.

Precise information on the strength of shell effects that enhance binding energies of protons and neutrons for filled shells is a key ingredient for more accurate theoretical predictions. As the binding energy is directly related to the mass via Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2, the weighing of nuclei provides access to the nuclear binding energies and thus the strength of the shell effects. With the ion‐trap facility SHIPTRAP, presently the most precise balance for weighing the heaviest elements, a series of very heavy atomic nuclei in the region of the magic neutron number N=152 have now been weighed with utmost precision for the first time. The studies at hand focused on nobelium (element 102) and lawrencium (element 103). These elements do not exist in nature, so the scientists produced them at the GSI’s particle accelerator facility and captured them in the SHIPTRAP. The measurements had to be performed with just a handful of atoms: for the isotope lawrencium‐256 just about 50 could be studied during a measurement time of about 93 hours.

The new data will benchmark the best present models for the heaviest atomic nuclei and provide an important stepping stone to further refining the models. This will lead to more precise predictions on the location and extension of the “Island of stability“ of superheavy elements.

The experiments were carried out by an international team led by scientists of GSI and the Helmholtz‐Institute Mainz (HIM) in collaboration with scientists from the universities of Giessen, Granada (Spain), Greifswald, Heidelberg, Mainz, Munich und Padua (Italy), as well as the Max‐Planck‐ Institute for Nuclear Physics Heidelberg and the PNPI St. Petersburg (Russia).

Original publication:

E. Minaya Ramirez et al. “Direct mapping of nuclear shell effects in the heaviest elements” von, Science 2012
DOI: 10.1126/science.1225636
Link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1225636

Contact to scientists:

Dr. Michael Block
GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung
Planckstrasse 1
64291 Darmstadt

Prof. Dr. Christoph E. Düllmann
Helmholtz Institut Mainz und Institut für Kernchemie
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität
55099 Mainz

Prof. Klaus Blaum
Max-Planck-Institut für Kernphysik
Saupfercheckweg 1
69117 Heidelberg

Prof. Lutz Schweikhard
Institut für Physik
Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-Universität Greifswald
17487 Greifswald

Priv. Doz. Dr. Peter G. Thirolf
Fakultät für Physik der Ludwig-Maximilians- Universität
Am Coulombwall 1
85748 Garching

Dr. Wolfgang Plaß
II. Physikalisches Institut
Justus-Liebig Universität
Heinrich-Buff-Ring 14
35392 Gießen

Enrique Minaya Ramirez (r.) and Michael Block with the Shiptrap ion detector.
Enrique Minaya Ramirez (l.) und Michael Block at the SHIPTRAP setup at GSI.
The SHIPTRAP Penning trap consist of several cylindrical gold-plated electrodes separated by ceramic insulators.
Chart of nuclides in the region of the heaviest elements.
This map shows presently known isotopes of the heaviest elements as squares. Blue: Calculated strength of shell effects. Red: nobelium and lawrencium isotopes studied. Green / yellow: Nuclides whose masses have been improved by the results. Orange: Location of closed shells.
Foto: G. Otto / GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung
Foto: G. Otto / GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung
Foto: G. Otto / GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung
Credit: Courtesy of Science/AAAS