When Will We Reach the End of the Periodic Table? (2023)

When Will We Reach the End of the Periodic Table? (1)

Chemistry teachers recently had to update their classroom décor, with the announcement that scientists have confirmed the discovery of four new elements on the periodic table. The as-yet unnamed elements 113, 115, 117 and 118 filled in the remaining gaps at the bottom of the famous chart—a roadmap of matter’s building blocks that has successfully guided chemists for nearly a century and a half.

The official confirmation, granted by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), was years in the making, as these superheavy elements are highly unstable and tough to create. But scientists had strong reason to believe they existed, in part because the periodic table has been remarkably consistent so far. Efforts to conjure up elements 119 and 120, which would start a new row, are already underway.

But exactly how many more elements are out there remains one of chemistry’s most persistent mysteries, especially as our modern understanding of physics has revealed anomalies even in the established players.

“Cracks are beginning to show in the periodic table,” says Walter Loveland, a chemist at Oregon State University.

The modern incarnation of the periodic table organizes elements by rows based on atomic number—the number of protons in an atom's nucleus—and by columns based on the orbits of their outermost electrons, which in turn usually dictate their personalities. Soft metals that tend to react strongly with others, such as lithium and potassium, live in one column. Non-metallic reactive elements, like fluorine and iodine, inhabit another.

French geologist Alexandre-Émile Béguyer de Chancourtois was the first person to recognize that elements could be grouped in recurring patterns. He displayed the elements known in 1862, ordered by their weights, as a spiral wrapped around a cylinder (see the illustration below). Elements vertically in line with each other on this cylinder had similar characteristics.

But it was the organizational scheme created by Dmitri Mendeleev, a hot-tempered Russian who claimed to have seen groupings of elements in a dream, that stood the test of time. His 1871 periodic table wasn’t perfect; it predicted eight elements that do not exist, for instance. However, it also correctly foretold gallium (now used in lasers), germanium (now used in transistors) and other increasingly heavy elements.

The Mendeleev periodic table easily accepted a brand new column for the noble gases, such as helium, which had eluded detection until the end of the 19th century because of their proclivity to not react with other elements.

The modern periodic table has been more or less consistent with quantum physics, introduced in the 20th century to explain the behavior of subatomic particles like protons and electrons. In addition, the groupings have mostly held as heavier elements have been confirmed. Bohrium, the name given to element 107 after its discovery in 1981, fits so neatly with the other so-called transition metals that surround it, one of the researchers who discovered it proclaimed “bohrium is boring.”

(Video) Will We Ever Finish the Periodic Table?

But interesting times may lie ahead.

One open question concernslanthanum and actinium, which have less in common with the other members of their respective groups than lutetium and lawrencium. IUPAC recently appointed a task force to look into this issue. Even helium, element 2, isn’t straightforward—an alternative version of the periodic table exists that places helium with beryllium and magnesium instead of its noble gas neighbors, based on the arrangements of all its electrons instead of only the outermost ones.

“There’s trouble at the beginning, middle and end of the periodic table,” saysEric Scerri, a historian in the chemistry department at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Einstein’sspecial theory of relativity, published decades after Mendeleev’s table, also introduced some chinks in the system. Relativity dictates that the mass of a particle increases with its speed. That can cause the negatively charged electrons orbiting the positively charged core of an atom to behave strangely, affecting the properties of an element.

Consider gold: The nucleus is packed with 79 positive protons, so to keep from falling inward, gold’s electrons have to whiz around at more than half the speed of light. That makes them more massive and pulls them into a tighter, lower-energy orbit. In this configuration, the electrons absorb blue light instead of reflecting it, giving wedding bands their distinctive gleam.

The notorious bongo-playing physicistRichard Feynmanis said to have invoked relativity to predict the end of the periodic table at element 137. To Feynman, 137 was a “magic number”—it had popped up for no obvious reason elsewhere in physics. His calculations showed that electrons in elements beyond 137 would have to move faster than the speed of light, and thus violate the rules of relativity, to avoid crashing into the nucleus.

When Will We Reach the End of the Periodic Table? (2)

More recent calculations have since overturned that limit. Feynman treated the nucleus as a single point. Allow it to be a ball of particles, and the elements can keep going until about 173. Then all hell breaks loose. Atoms beyond this limit may exist but only as strange creatures capable of summoning electrons from empty space.

Relativity isn't the only problem. Positively charged protons repel each other, so the more you pack into a nucleus, the less stable it tends to be. Uranium, with an atomic number of 92, is the last element stable enough to occur naturally on Earth. Every element beyond it has a nucleus that falls apart quickly, and their half-lives—the time it takes for half of the material to decay—can be minutes, seconds or even split seconds.

Heavier, unstable elements may exist elsewhere in the universe, like inside dense neutron stars, but scientists can study them here only by smashing together lighter atoms to make heavier ones and then sifting through the decay chain.

(Video) Are there Undiscovered Elements Beyond The Periodic Table?

“We really do not know what is the heaviest element that could exist,” says nuclear physicist Witold Nazarewicz of Michigan State University.

Theory predicts that there will be a point at which our lab-made nuclei won’t live long enough to form a proper atom. A radioactive nucleus that falls apart in less than ten trillionths of a second wouldn’t have time to gather electrons around itself and make a new element.

Still, many scientists expect islands of stability to exist further down the road, where superheavy elements have relatively long-lived nuclei. Loading up certain superheavy atoms with lots of extra neutrons could confer stability by preventing the proton-rich nuclei from deforming. Element 114, for instance, is expected to have a magically stable number of neutrons at 184. Elements 120 and 126 have also been predicted to have the potential to be more durable.

But some claims of superheavy stability have already fallen apart. In the late 1960s chemist Edward Anders proposed that xenon in a meteorite that fell onto Mexican soil had come from the breakdown of a mystery element between 112 and 119 that would be stable enough to occur in nature. After spending years narrowing his search, he ultimately retracted his hypothesis in the 1980s.

Predicting the potential stability of heavy elements isn’t easy. The calculations, which require tremendous computing power, haven’t been done for many of the known players. And even when they have, this is very new territory for nuclear physics, where even small changes in the inputs can have profound impacts on the expected results.

One thing is for certain: Making each new element is going to get harder, not only because shorter-lived atoms are harder to detect, but because making superheavies may require beams of atoms that are themselves radioactive. Whether or not there is an end to the periodic table, there may be an end to our ability for creating new ones.

“I think we’re a long way off from the end of the periodic table,” says Scerri. “The limiting factor right now seems to be human ingenuity.”

Editor's Note: WitoldNazarewicz's affiliation has been corrected.

Periodic Table Recommended Reading List

(Video) ELEMENT NAMES: The etymology of the periodic table

When Will We Reach the End of the Periodic Table? (3)

A Tale of Seven Elements

An authoritative account of the early history of the periodic table can be found in Eric Scerri’s A Tale of Seven Elements, which takes a deep dive into the controversies surrounding the discoveries of seven elements.

When Will We Reach the End of the Periodic Table? (4)

The Periodic Table

Readers with an interest in the Holocaust should pick up a copy of Primo Levi’s moving memoir, The Periodic Table. Also, for a compelling autobiography that uses the periodic table to frame the life of one of the world's most beloved neurologists, see Oliver Sacks’ New York Times op-ed "My Periodic Table."

When Will We Reach the End of the Periodic Table? (5)

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

Sam Kean takes his readers on a lively and chaotic romp through the elements in The Disappearing Spoon.

(Video) Superheavy Elements: The End of the Periodic Table

When Will We Reach the End of the Periodic Table? (6)

The Lost Elements: The Periodic Table's Shadow Side

Science enthusiasts interested in the insider baseball behind elements that never made it into the periodic table can check out the well-researched The Lost Elements by Marco Fontani, Mariagrazia Costa and Mary Virginia Orna.

Devin Powell | READ MORE

Devin Powell is a freelance writer based in New York. He has also contributed to publications such as Nature, National Geographic, The Washington Post and New Scientist.

Recommended Videos


Will there be an end to the periodic table? ›

It is unknown how far the periodic table might extend beyond the known 118 elements, as heavier elements are predicted to be increasingly unstable. Glenn T. Seaborg suggested that practically speaking, the end of the periodic table might come as early as around Z = 120 due to nuclear instability.

Will element 119 be discovered? ›

Between the two labs, scientists are confident that 119 and 120 will appear somewhere within about 5 years. If you look backwards over several decades people have made roughly one new element maybe every 3 years—until now. It's the next 5 years that worry people.

Is Element 120 possible? ›

“The probability of survival is extremely weak”

In order to secure element 120, we have chosen to use a titanium-50 beam (Z=22) and a californium-249 target (Z=98). By adding together other elements, it is also possible to combine 120 protons, but why choose these two?

What scientist has predicted a possible end to the periodic table? ›

The notorious bongo-playing physicist Richard Feynman is said to have invoked relativity to predict the end of the periodic table at element 137.

Can there be more than 137 elements? ›

So, according to this calculation, elements having the atomic number (maximum of) 137 can exist. This value may be quite higher if the medium is not vacuum (then ǫ0 will be higher). calculations, showed that the maximum possible atomic number is 100.

What is the 200th element? ›

Please visit the Polonium element page for information specific to the chemical element of the periodic table.
Polonium-200 atom.
PubChem CID24755511
DescriptionPolonium-200 atom is a polonium atom. ChEBI
5 more rows

What is Earth's rarest element? ›

A team of researchers using the ISOLDE nuclear-physics facility at CERN has measured for the first time the so-called electron affinity of the chemical element astatine, the rarest naturally occurring element on Earth.

What is the rarest man made element? ›

Astatine is therefore the rarest element in the periodic table because it's the hardest to produce. So hard to produce, in fact, that the scientists who first created it in 1939 couldn't detect its existence directly and had to resort to a trick.

What is the rarest element in the universe? ›

Astatine is the rarest naturally occurring element.

Is Latinum a real element? ›

latinum (Pt) is a metallic chemical element with a white-silver luster. It is the most widely used element among the six transition elements in group X of the periodic table. They are also known as the platinum metals (ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium and platinum).

Are there man made elements? ›

The elements following uranium on the periodic table are only produced artificially, and are known as the transuranium or transuranic elements. These elements may have existed on Earth early in its history, but like technetium, would have long ago decayed into more stable elements.

What is the 125th element? ›

Tellurium, isotope of mass 125. Tellurium125. More... Molecular Weight. 124.90443.

Are there still undiscovered elements? ›

Although there are elements we have not yet created or found in nature, scientists already know what they will be and can predict their properties. For example, element 125 has not been observed, but when it is, it will appear in a new row of the periodic table as a transition metal.

Where does the periodic table end? ›

The periodic table could be considered to end at the largest stable element, lead (atomic number 82). All elements with higher atomic numbers have unstable nuclei, because the assembled protons become too large for the strong nuclear force to hold together.

What was the last element to be discovered? ›

Oganesson was discovered in 2002 and its properties defy our expectations based on trends in the periodic table. Oganesson has several distinctions amongst all of the elements in the periodic table.

What could be the 119th element? ›

Ununennium, also known as eka-francium or element 119, is the hypothetical chemical element with symbol Uue and atomic number 119.

What is the largest possible atom? ›

Oganesson has the highest atomic number and highest atomic mass of all known elements. The radioactive oganesson atom is very unstable, and since 2005, only five (possibly six) atoms of the isotope oganesson-294 have been detected.

What is the heaviest element ever made? ›

In 2002, a team of Russian and American scientists created the first ever atom of oganesson, which is the heaviest chemical element ever recorded to date. With an atomic number of 118, oganesson filled the final gap in the seventh period of the periodic table as a noble gas.

Why is there no element 117? ›

Plans to synthesize element 117 were suspended in favor of the confirmation of element 118, which had been produced earlier in 2002 by bombarding a californium target with calcium.

What is the newest element? ›

Their names are Nihonium, Moscovium and Tennessine. The fourth element is named Oganesson. It was named after a Russian nuclear physicist named Yuri Oganessian.

Is element 126 possible? ›

Unbihexium, also known as element 126 or eka-plutonium, is the hypothetical chemical element with atomic number 126 and placeholder symbol Ubh. Unbihexium and Ubh are the temporary IUPAC name and symbol, respectively, until the element is discovered, confirmed, and a permanent name is decided upon.

What is the number 1 element on earth? ›

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe – all of the hydrogen in the universe has its origin in the first few moments after the Big Bang.

What are the 3 rarest elements found on earth? ›

Osmium, rhodium and iridium are probably the rarest metals found in the Earth's crust with average concentrations of 0.0001, 0.0002 and 0.0003 parts per million by weight respectively.

What is rare earth used for? ›

"Rare-earth elements (REEs) are used as components in high technology devices, including smart phones, digital cameras, computer hard disks, fluorescent and light-emitting-diode (LED) lights, flat screen televisions, computer monitors, and electronic displays.

Is gold element rare? ›

Gold is rare throughout the Universe because it's a relatively hefty atom, consisting of 79 protons and 118 neutrons. That makes it hard to produce, even in the incredible heat and pressure of the 'chemical forges' of supernovae, the deaths of giant stars responsible for creating most chemical elements.

What is the 2nd rarest element? ›

The second rarest naturally occurring element is Francium, Atomic number 87.

What is the lightest metal? ›

So, lithium is the lightest metal in the periodic table.

What is the most powerful thing in the universe? ›

That's about the same amount of energy in 10 trillion trillion billion megaton bombs! These explosions generate beams of high-energy radiation, called gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), which are considered by astronomers to be the most powerful thing in the universe.

What is the hardest thing in the universe? ›

Summary: A team of scientists has calculated the strength of the material deep inside the crust of neutron stars and found it to be the strongest known material in the universe.

What is the most expensive thing in the universe? ›

It's 16 Psyche, an asteroid discoverby Annibale de Gasparis on March 17, 1852. The first of fifteen asteroids given symbols by astronomers as a type of short-hand notation. According to NASA it's made of iron-nickel and valued at over 135,000 times the value of all the money on Earth.

What elements are humans based on? ›

The human body is approximately 99% comprised of just six elements: Oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, calcium, and phosphorus. Another five elements make up about 0.85% of the remaining mass: sulfur, potassium, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium.

Do super heavy elements exist? ›

Elements with more than 92 protons are unstable; they decay to lighter nuclei with a characteristic half-life. This means superheavy elements do not occur in large quantities (if at all) naturally on earth, and only exist briefly under highly controlled circumstances.

How much is 1 bar of latinum? ›

One bar of gold-pressed latinum is equal to twenty strips or 2,000 slips of latinum.

Is element 118 possible? ›

Oganesson is a synthetic chemical element with the symbol Og and atomic number 118. It was first synthesized in 2002 at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna, near Moscow, Russia, by a joint team of Russian and American scientists.

Will there be a period 8 of the periodic table? ›

Period 8 elements are predicted go from 119 Ununennium (Uue) to element 172 Unseptbium (Usb). 5g orbitals fill during period 8. There are 18 of those so period 8 needs to be 18 elements wider than period 7.

Where would element 119 go? ›

Based on both the Seaborg and Pyykkö extended periodic tables described above, element 119 will be the start of period 8 and it will be an alkali metal.

Is element 138 possible? ›

Untrioctium (pronounced /ˌʌntraɪˈɒktiəm/) is an unsynthesized chemical element with atomic number 138 and symbol Uto.


1. The Periodic Table Song (2018 Update!) | SCIENCE SONGS
2. What’s at the end of the periodic table? — Speaking of Chemistry
(Chemical & Engineering News)
3. “Everything We Know Will Soon Come To An End” | Jordan Peterson
(Millionaire Mentor)
4. The Periodic Table Song with real elements
(Engineered Labs)
5. Get to Know the Periodic Table | Wondrium Perspectives
6. Is There an End to the Periodic Table of Elements?
(Oak Ridge National Laboratory)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Virgilio Hermann JD

Last Updated: 06/07/2023

Views: 5387

Rating: 4 / 5 (41 voted)

Reviews: 80% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Virgilio Hermann JD

Birthday: 1997-12-21

Address: 6946 Schoen Cove, Sipesshire, MO 55944

Phone: +3763365785260

Job: Accounting Engineer

Hobby: Web surfing, Rafting, Dowsing, Stand-up comedy, Ghost hunting, Swimming, Amateur radio

Introduction: My name is Virgilio Hermann JD, I am a fine, gifted, beautiful, encouraging, kind, talented, zealous person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.