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Element 117
Element 117 is now known as tennessine in recognition of Tennessee’s contributions to its discovery. (ORNL Photo)

After months of review, the world’s authority on chemical names has approved the official labels for four extremely rare elements at the bottom of the periodic table.

This week’s decision from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, or IUPAC, will literally rewrite chemistry textbooks. Here are the names and symbols that chemists will have to keep in mind from now on:

  • Nihonium (Nh) for Element 113: The name comes from “Nihon,” one of the two ways to say “Japan” in Japanese. Proposed by the element’s discoverers at the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accerator-Based Science in Japan.
  • Moscovium (Mc) for Element 115: The name pays tribute to Russia’s Moscow region, home of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna.
  • Tennessine (Ts) for Element 117: This name pays tribute to Tennessee. Moscovium and tennessine were both discovered at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, with help from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Vanderbilt University (both in Tennessee) as well as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. For what it’s worth, Livermore Lab is in the state of California, which already has californium (Cf, Element 98).
  • Oganesson (Og) for Element 118: Proposed by the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research and Livermore Lab to honor Russian nuclear physicist Yuri Oganessian, a leader of the discovery team.

All four of these superheavy elements had to be synthesized from other elements in laboratories, and exist for only brief periods before decaying into other elements. They’ve never been found in nature. The numbers of the elements correspond to how many protons are found in their nuclei.

Tradition dictates that the names for new elements are proposed by their discoverers and approved by IUPAC. Other names were suggested during a five-month public comment period, but IUPAC decided to go ahead with what the discoverers suggested.

“Overall, it was a real pleasure to realize that so many people are interested in the naming of the new elements, including high-school students, making essays about possible names and telling how proud they were to have been able to participate in the discussions,” Jan Reedijk, president of IUPAC’s Inorganic Chemistry Division, said in today’s statement.

The four elements complete the seventh row of the periodic table, but scientists suspect that still more elements could be found in a theoretical “island of stability” beyond Element 118.

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