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Einsteinium is a rare and intriguing element. It’s the 99th element on the periodic table and – unlike most of its cousins, which are found in nature – it has only ever been synthesised. Scientists have long struggled with its properties, as it is very hard to make and is highly radioactive. But a team at Berkeley Lab has managed to do something significant with it: they’ve been able to characterise some of its properties.
The team used a sample of einsteinium produced at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s High Flux Isotope Reactor, one of only a few places in the world that can produce it. As a consequence, the sample is heavily contaminated with einsteinium’s periodic table neighbour, californium (which is why it was jokingly given the nickname “pandamonium” at the time of its discovery). That contamination made X-ray crystallography – an essential tool in studying elements – impossible. So the scientists had to work out another way, using a combination of their knowledge of einsteinium and advanced facilities at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the Molecular Foundry at UC Berkeley.
The team characterized the crystal structure of einsteinium by measuring the atoms’ positions in three dimensions to form the unit cell, and also measured the angles between them (lattice angles). They were then able to use the atomic position information to study the element’s chemical properties, including its ionisation energy. Ionisation energies are an important measurement, as they describe the tendency of neutral atoms to gain or lose electrons and become negative ions. They were also able to calculate the element’s latent heat of fusion, which is the amount of energy it takes to convert from solid to liquid.