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Polish Scientists Help Confirm Existence of New Element
November 3, 2014   
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Research to confirm the existence of artificially created atoms of an element with the atomic number 117, conducted at an accelerator center in Darmstadt, Germany, has ended in success. Silicon strip detectors developed at the Institute of Electron Technology in Warsaw played an important part in the project.

Evidence confirming the existence of the element has been obtained at the Center for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt. A team of 72 physicists, chemists and engineers from 11 countries, including Poland, have contributed to this achievement, which has been described in the prestigious scientific journal Physical Review Letters. Silicon strip detectors developed and fabricated at the Institute of Electron Technology (ITE) in Warsaw made it possible to observe nuclear particles indicating the presence of atoms of the new element.

Element 117 was first created and observed in 2010, during an international experiment conducted at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia. In line with the established scientific practice, the results needed to be independently confirmed. Such confirmation has now been obtained.

Due to its short lifetime, element 117 does not occur naturally and must be created artificially. A target made from high-purity isotope of berkelium Bk-249 plays a key part in its production. This radioactive metal decays with a half-life of only 330 days. The material for the berkelium target was provided by the renowned Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the United States, which produced 13 milligrams of berkelium in a year and a half. The berkelium target was bombarded with heavy ions of calcium at the center in Darmstadt. Individual atoms of element 117 were subsequently extracted from huge cascades of emerging nuclear particles, and their decay products were observed. Specially designed particle detectors were essential for the success of the experiment.

Silicon charged-particle detectors, developed and fabricated at the Institute of Electron Technology in cooperation with the Institute for Radiochemistry at the Munich University of Technology and the GSI in Darmstadt, were designed specifically for the Focal Plane Detector Box (FPDB) for the TASCA (TransActinide Separator and Chemistry Apparatus) separator at GSI. The FPDP consists of three different detector setups manufactured at the Institute of Electron Technology. The main one is called the stop detector. There are also auxiliary detectors: the first set registers particles reflected from the stop detector, the next registers light ions which were able to pass through the stop detector.

In the FPDB, atoms of element 117 transformed—in alpha decays—into lighter elements with atomic numbers from 103 to 115. Among such elements, a new isotope of lawrencium, the element with the atomic number 103, was detected—Lr-266. Accurate registration of emerging alpha particles made it possible to reconstruct decay chains and identify the source, which turned out to be atoms of element 117.

“We have developed a set of detectors with optimal parameters for research on transactinide elements for the TASCA separator, which has been recognized as a state-of-the-art stop detector array,” says MaciejWęgrzecki, chief designer of the detectors, head of the silicon detector team at the ITE.

The semiconductor devices designed for the detection of alpha particles, beta particles and protons were developed from the ground up in Warsaw by a team of engineers from ITE, and are protected by patents. The devices have earned international acclaim and are used in leading global centers conducting research on transactinide elements. They contributed, among others, to the discovery of heavy atomic nuclei, including isotope 283 of element 112 (copernicium, Cn) in Dubna, and isotopes 270, 271 and 277 of element 108 (hassium, Hs) in Darmstadt. In 2009, they made it possible to observe a record number of 13 nuclei of isotopes 288 and 289 of element 114 (flerovium, Fl) during a single experiment in Darmstadt. The results of experiments conducted using ITE detectors are the subject of widely cited publications in prestigious scientific journals, including Nature. The research described in these publications led the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics to officially recognize elements 112 and 114 and add them to the periodic table.

According to ITE director Zbigniew Poznański, silicon detectors are one of the specialties of the institute. “With its unique technology and many years of experience we are able to make detectors with parameters beyond the reach of other companies. This is why we are a valued partner for one of the world’s leading nuclear research centers,” Poznański said.

The Institute of Electron Technology carries out research in the field of electronics and solid-state physics. It develops, implements and popularizes state-of-the-art micro- and nanotechnologies in photonics and micro- and nanoelectronics. The institute focuses on optoelectronic detectors and radiation sources, state-of-the-art semiconductor lasers, micro- and nanoprobes, nuclear radiation detectors, microsystems and sensors for interdisciplinary applications, as well as application-specific integrated circuits (ASIC). To make it easier for industrial partners and research centers to access its technology, design and measurement services, the institute has established a Center of Nanophotonics, a Center of Nanosystems and Microelectronic Technologies, and a Laboratory for Multilayer and Ceramic Technologies.
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