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Scientists discovered promethium in 1945. They were only just learning what it actually did.

Scientists discovered promethium in 1945. They were only just learning what it actually did.

Scientists finally reveal the secrets of promethiumJose A. Bernat Bassetti – Getty Images

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  • Although the periodic table of elements is an impressive achievement of human understanding, scientists still find secrets about certain elements among its carefully arranged rows and columns.

  • One such element is promethium, and a new study by scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has successfully analyzed the chemical properties of the rare earth metal nearly 80 years after its discovery.

  • The team used a new technique to create a pure isotope of the element, and this discovery could make protecting this rare element easier, while also increasing our understanding of lanthanide elements in general.


The periodic table of the elements is a testament to thousands of years of human exploration of the chemical world. However, no Everything It is known for the elements that appear in its colorful and meticulously arranged rows and columns. One of these elements is promethium.

Promethium was first discovered 80 years ago in 1945 Lanthanides (one of a series of 15 metallic chemicals also known as rare earth metals) has atomic number 61, and in the following eight decades after its discovery, many of its chemical properties remained a mystery. But that hasn't stopped its use, as traces of the element can be found in everything from smartphone screens to nuclear batteries, but it has proven difficult to study. That's because it's an extremely rare element that breaks down into other elements, which means you can only get promethium from fission.

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Scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a descendant of the original laboratory that discovered the element in 1945, A new process was implemented last year This allowed the creation of a pure sample of promethium-147, an isotope of promethium. Once this sample was combined with the compound to form a stable compound in water, the team was finally able to analyze the bonding properties of promethium using X-ray spectroscopy. The results of the study were published Last week in the magazine nature.

“Because it has no stable isotopes, promethium was the last of the lanthanides to be discovered and was the most difficult to study,” said Ilya Popovs of ORNL, a co-author of the study. He said in a press statement. “Anything that we would call a marvel of modern technology is going to include, in some form or another, these rare earth elements…we are adding the missing link.”

To take a closer look at promethium, the researchers first created a compound known as bispyrolidine diglycolamide (PyDGA). When this was combined with promethium, the electronic structure of Pm-PyDGA created a pink color, but more importantly it allowed scientists to emit X-rays and measure the absorbed frequencies, leading to clues about promethium's chemical bonds.

Understanding promethium and its bonding properties will help ORNL produce larger quantities of the rare earth metal while improving methods for separating it from other lanthanides. That's because the team successfully demonstrated a phenomenon known as “lanthanide contraction,” which explains how as atomic numbers in the lanthanide chain increase, the radius of the ions decreases, according to ORNL. This creates a specific chemical and electronic signature, and ORNL scientists recorded a clear “promethium signal,” which will help understand the trend across other rare earth metals.

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“You can't use all these lanthanides as a mixture in modern advanced technologies, because you first need to separate them,” Santa Jansson-Popova said. “This is where shrinkage becomes very important; it basically allows us to separate them, which is a task that is still very difficult.”

So, while the periodic table of elements may be a story about humankind's chemical ingenuity, it is also a scientific story that is still unfolding in laboratories around the world.

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