In the Element Kitchen
The Russian lab’s recipe for making new superheavy elements begins with expensive ingredients: rare, heavy isotopes of calcium and of an existing heavy element like plutonium. When the two kinds of atoms collide at high speed, they sometimes fuse into a new superheavy one. Here are six key steps.
1. BAKE a solid calcium compound at 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit in an oven (shown here with its clamshell cover off). The calcium vaporizes, forming a gas that can be shaped into a high-energy beam.
2. IONIZE the calcium atoms by stripping off some of their electrons in a kind of microwave oven (red cylinder). The positively charged ions can now be accelerated by electric and magnetic fields.
3. ACCELERATE the ions in a pie-shaped cyclotron. Here you’re at the center, where the ions come in. The dark wedge of an electrode assembly, five feet wide, is pointing at you from the mouth of a copper-clad pipe, which generates a strong electric field. Under its sway, the calcium ions spiral out through the hollow electrodes.
4. EXTRACT the calcium ions from the outer rim of the cyclotron, and use magnets to channel them down this tube in a four-inch-wide beam. They’re traveling at 67 million miles an hour, or a tenth the speed of light.
5. SMASH the calcium ions into a spinning target. It’s the crinkly foil barely visible just inside the rim of the brass wheel. The foil is coated with plutonium or another heavy element—which one depends on what new element is being cooked.
6. DETECT the new element. It’s the needle in the haystack of debris coming out the back of the foil target. The first step at Dubna is to catch all that in a disk of red-hot graphite, slowing it down for analysis.