The Lightest Known Uranium Isotope Was Created In China

A Chinese team of scientists fired a beam of argon atoms into a wolfram target. That created a so far unknown isotope of uranium. Uranium-214. It has just 122 neutrons making it much lighter than common uranium isotopes.


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The world of isotopes is fascinating, wild, and still quite mysterious. Recently, Chinese experts created a new, until now unknown uranium isotope. Uranium-214 is so far the lightest isotope of this element. The discovery itself is fascinating and can only help us deepen our knowledge about the still somewhat mysterious alpha particles.

The isotopes uranium-214 has 30 more neutrons than protons. The total number is 122 neutrons. It has one less neutron than the previously lightest uranium isotope and at the same time is has significantly fewer neutrons than common uranium isotopes. In comparison with the well-known uranium-235, the uranium-214 has 51 neutrons less. And as neutrons come with mass this makes uranium-214 is much lighter than the common isotopes.

Not only is uranium-214 much lighter it comes with other oddities. For example, it has very specific behavior during radioactive decay and this might help us understand the process of alpha decay. During alpha decay, an alpha particle made by two protons and two neutrons is released. And while we know about alpha decay for more than a hundred years we still don’t know how exactly alpha particles are made.

The discovery of the new isotope was done by a Chinese team from the Heavy Ion Research Facility (HIRFL) in Lanzhou. They used the Spectrometer for Heavy Atoms and Nuclear Structure (SHANS) that fired a beam of argon atoms into a wolfram target. The newly created uranium-214 isotope has a half-life of just half a millisecond. Compare that with the half-life of the most common uranium isotope uranium-238 – 4.5 billion years.

Detailed analysis of the decay of uranium-214 shows that the protons and neutrons in the created alpha-particles interact with each other much stronger than in other isotopes or elements with a similar number of protons and neutrons. The authors of the study think this is because of the specific number of neutrons in uranium-214 because the number 122 is close to the “magical neutron number”. This magical number of neutrons is 126 and is extremely stable making it ideal for research.

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