#130 from R&D Innovator Volume 3, Number 12          December 1994

My Romance with the Transuranium Elements
by Glenn T. Seaborg

Dr. Seaborg, winner of the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for co-discovering plutonium and nine other transuranium elements, is (at 82 years old) associate director-at-large of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.  Recently, element number 106 was proposed to be named seaborgium, the only element named after a living scientist.

Some things you just take for granted—for instance, the periodic table of elements.  Questioning this well-worn chart certainly was not the thing to do.  But data forced me to question it and, thank goodness, I did.

Soon after becoming a chemistry graduate student at the University of California—Berkeley in 1934 I fell in love with the transuranium elements.  These were the undiscovered elements with atomic numbers greater than 92 (the atomic number of uranium), the heaviest naturally-occurring element.

We (the transuranics and I) were first introduced at the weekly chemistry seminar on nuclear science held in venerable Gilman Hall.  Actually, I was introduced to what were thought to be the transuranium elements.  I read articles by Enrico Fermi about the induced radioactivities observed when elements such as uranium were bombarded with neutrons.  Since some were published in their native Italian, they were a challenge to decipher.

These induced radioactivities were of special interest to me because these were supposedly due to the formation of new elements with atomic numbers greater than 92.

Fermi and his coworkers tried to chemically identify these new radioactivities which were, of course, produced in trace (unweighable) quantities, so radiochemistry methods were needed.  For guidance, we predicted the chemical properties with the periodic table as it was then known.  The heaviest natural elements, thorium, protactinium, and uranium (atomic numbers 90, 91, and 92), were placed in that table just below the sixth period “transition elements” — hafnium, tantalum, and tungsten (in these elements, the "5d" electron shell is being filled).  Thus it was assumed that the 6d electron shell was being filled in these heaviest elements, and the chemical properties of the transuranics, the undiscovered elements 93, 94, 95, and 96, would be homologous with the 5d elements immediately above them in the periodic table, rhenium, osmium, iridium, and platinum.  The limited chemical identification experiments of Fermi and coworkers seemed consistent with this view.  The work of Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Fritz Strassman in Berlin seemed to further confirm it. 

We Were Misled

Little did we know then how we were being misled by accepting what was easiest to accept.  I bought this interpretation “hook, line, and sinker."  In fall 1936, I described the work and interpretation of Otto Hahn and coworkers during a required graduate student talk to the chemistry faculty, staff, graduate students, and visiting scientists.

Then in January 1939, the bubble burst!  At the physics journal club meeting, we heard something extraordinary.  Niels Bohr, who had arrived in New York the previous week, brought news from Otto Hahn’s laboratory that the neutron-bombardment of uranium produced isotopes of light elements, like barium and lanthanum.  The meaning was simple: the uranium had been split approximately in half, and all the radioactive “transuranium” isotopes studied by Hahn, Strassman, and Meitner during the previous four years were actually isotopes from the middle of the periodic table. 

This was exciting!  After the seminar, I walked the Berkeley streets for hours, chagrined that I hadn’t recognized that the “transuranium elements” in which I had been so interested were nothing of the kind.  I felt stupid for failing to admit the possibility.  Subsequent work showed that practically all of the radioactivities that had been ascribed to transuranium elements were actually due to fission products!

With poetic justice, the actual discovery of the first transuranic resulted from experiments aimed at understanding the fission process.  In 1940, E.M. McMillan and P.H. Abelson showed that a radioactive product of the bombardment of uranium with neutrons was an isotope of element 93, with a mass number 239 (23993).  The isotope 23993, a negative beta-particle emitter, should decay to the product 23994, but they were unable to observe this daughter product due to its long half-life. 

McMillan then started looking for a shorter-lived isotope of element 94 through the deuteron bombardment of uranium.  When McMillan was called to MIT for war work, I continued this quest with the help of my graduate student Arthur C. Wahl and another instructor in chemistry at Berkeley, Joseph W. Kennedy.  We succeeded in observing the isotope 23894, which we could chemically identify but most importantly, we found that the chemical properties of element 94 weren’t like those predicted from the periodic table of that time (i.e., not like osmium), but were chemically similar to uranium.  Joined by physicist Emilio Segrč, we soon identified 23994 and, most importantly, demonstrated that it was fissionable by slow neutrons.  Following McMillan's suggestion for naming element 93 “neptunium” (after Neptune, the first planet beyond Uranus), Wahl and I suggested “plutonium” (after Pluto, the next planet) for element 94.  The chemical symbols would be "Np" and "Pu".

They Had the Wrong Properties

The chemical properties of neptunium and plutonium were found to be similar to those of uranium and quite unlike those of rhenium and osmium, which, according to the existing periodic table, they should have resembled.  Thus we concluded that a new series of 14 rare-earth-like elements, starting at uranium, would be the “uranide” (uranium-like) series, just as the 14 rare-earth elements were known as the “lanthanide” (lanthanum-like) series.

Wrong again!

Soon after Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, I moved to the wartime Metallurgical Laboratory of the University of Chicago.  Here, we solved many of the problems attendant with plutonium-239 production, and I turned my attention to the quest for the next two transuranium elements, 95 and 96.  I was joined in the endeavor by my colleagues Albert Ghiorso, Ralph A. James, and Leon O. (Tom) Morgan.

We weren’t successful until I suggested that we needed a bold revision of the periodic table.  I wrote a secret report in July, 1944, suggesting that thorium, protactinium, and uranium be removed from the body of the periodic table and placed as the beginning of a "transition" series, analogous to the lanthanide (rare-earth) elements, in a separate row at the bottom.  Thus the 14 elements beginning with thorium (elements 90-103), would become the “actinide” elements (by analogy with the “lanthanide” elements).  They would then show the necessary element-by-element analogy with the lanthanide elements (58-71). 

Thus element 95 would be chemically similar to the lanthanide element europium (63) and element 96 would be chemically similar to gadolinium (64).  Using this concept, in 1944 and 1945 we synthesized and chemically identified elements 95 and 96, by analogy with their rare earth homologues, europium (element 63) and gadolinium (element 64).  The new elements were subsequently named americium (95) and curium (96).

This bold revision of the periodic table was a hard sell.  When I showed it to some world-renowned inorganic chemists, I was advised not to publish it--such an act would "ruin my scientific reputation."

However, I did publish it after the war, and it became a guide for the chemical identification of most of the subsequent members of the actinide series.  The series was predicted to end at element 103, and the subsequent investigations confirmed this.

At element 104 (now known as rutherfordium), we jumped back up to the body of the periodic table, and rutherfordium took its place under hafnium (element 72).  (This spot had been occupied by thorium before I moved it to a separate row at the bottom of the periodic table).  Then we proceed across the periodic table to undiscovered element 118, which will be a noble gas or liquid. 

This form of the periodic table is accepted throughout the world and is now ubiquitous in wall charts and chemistry books.  I am, needless to say, proud that U.S. chemists recommended that element 106, which is placed under tungsten (74), be called ‘seaborgium.’ I was looking forward to the day when chemical investigators will refer to such compounds as seaborgous chloride, seaborgic nitrate, and perhaps, sodium seaborgate.  Unfortunately, however, this name is under dispute by the Commission on Nomenclature in Organic Chemistry of the Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) because I’m still alive.  Rejection of this name would be the first in history that the uncontested discoverers of an element are denied the privilege of naming it.  IUPAC may make a final decision on this at its meeting in the United Kingdom in August, 1995.

Anyway, sometimes you just have to do some remodeling.  The periodic table, one of the beauties of scientific thought—is not Gospel but rather a guideline based on the best available evidence at the time.  Essentially, what I did was to follow the fundamental principle of Mendeleev's table: that elements tend to chemically resemble those above them in the table.  Instead of deciding that this rule no longer applied in the transuranic region, I remodeled the table to follow its essential truth.

The moral I draw from all this is that you must have the courage to follow the data--even if it goes against the known “truth.”

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