Extremely Rare Periodic Element Behaving Like It's From an 'Alternative Universe'

Berkelium is 97 on the periodic table and does not occur naturally. Science Activism/Flickr

Lurking at the bottom of the periodic table is a group of super-heavy, radioactive elements that are so rare that they can't be found in nature; they had to be created in the lab. Among these is berkelium, named by the scientists from U.C. Berkeley that first synthesized it.

Very little is known about this unusual element, in part because of its scarcity. Only about a gram of the stuff has been produced in the United States since 1967. But breakthrough new research is beginning to unravel some of the mysteries of this massive metal, and it's more bizarre than we ever could have imagined.

Most notably, berkelium's electrons behave in strange ways, seemingly violating the laws of quantum mechanics. The more we learn about this element, the more it seems we might have to amend some of our most established theories just to account for it.

“It’s almost like being in an alternate universe because you’re seeing chemistry you simply don’t see in everyday elements,” said Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt, one of the Florida State University researchers working on the study.

What's so weird about berkelium's electrons? For starters, they don't arrange themselves around their atoms the way that electrons organize around lighter elements like oxygen, zinc or silver. Furthermore, they don't "line-up" to face the same direction like electrons do in the lighter elements.

What this amounts to is that the rules of quantum mechanics — the fundamental theory of nature describing what happens at the atomic and subatomic levels — no longer apply. Most damning of all, researchers observed that as berkelium's electrons begin to move at extremely fast speeds around each atom's highly charged nucleus, they start to become heavier. Interestingly, this observation fits better with what Einstein's Theory of Relativity predicts. And that's unexpected because Einstein's theory usually applies to the universe on a larger scale.

“When you see this interesting phenomenon, you start asking yourself all these questions like how can you make it stronger or shut it down,” said Albrecht-Schmitt. “A few years ago, no one even thought you could make a berkelium compound.”

For now, it's unclear exactly what this might mean for quantum mechanics or our understanding of the periodic table, but our theories might be in line for a shake-up. Perhaps there's even something here that can link Einstein's theory about what happens on the larger scales with quantum theory and what happens on the smallest scales. We'll just have to stay tuned to this important work.

The findings are reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.