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Have scientists discovered a new element?

The periodic table might get a new addition. Scientists in Germany say they have replicated a decade-old Russian experiment that created dozens of short-lived atoms with 115 protons.

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A student the Davidson Academy of Reno, Nevada works on homework with the periodic table of the elements in 2011.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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Scientists say they've created a handful of atoms of the elusive element 115, which occupies a mysterious corner of the periodic table.

The super-heavy element has yet to be officially named, but it is temporarily called ununpentium, roughly based on the Latin and Greek words for the digits in its atomic number, 115.  

The atomic number is the number of protons an element contains. The heaviest element commonly found in nature is uranium, which has 92 protons, but scientists can load even more protons into an atomic nucleus and make heavier elements through nuclear fusion reactions. [Wacky Physics: The Coolest Little Particles in Nature]

Scientists hope that by creating heavier and heavier elements, they will find a theoretical "island of stability," an undiscovered region in the periodic table where stable super-heavy elements with as yet unimagined practical uses might exist. 

In experiments in Dubna, Russia about 10 years ago, researchers reported that they created atoms with 115 protons. Their measurements have now been confirmed in experiments at the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Germany.

To make ununpentium in the new study, a group of researchers shot a super-fast beam of calcium (which has 20 protons) at a thin film of americium, the element with 95 protons. When these atomic nuclei collided, some fused together to create short-lived atoms with 115 protons.

"We observed 30 in our three-week-long experiment," study researcher Dirk Rudolph, a professor of atomic physics at Lund University in Sweden, said in an email. Rudolph added that the Russian team had detected 37 atoms of element 115 in their earlier experiments.

"The results are by and large compatible," Rudolph said.

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