Synthetic element

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  Synthetic elements
  Rare radioactive natural elements; often produced artificially

In chemistry, a synthetic element is a chemical element that does not occur naturally on Earth, and can only be created artificially. So far, 20 synthetic elements have been created (those with atomic numbers 99–118). All are unstable, decaying with half-lives ranging from a year to a few hundred microseconds.

Nine other elements were first created artificially and thus considered synthetic, but later discovered to exist naturally (in trace quantities) as well; among them plutonium—first synthesized in 1940—the one best known to laypeople, because of its use in atomic bombs and nuclear reactors.


Synthetic elements are radioactive and decay rapidly into lighter elements—possessing half-lives so short, relative to the age of the Earth (which formed approximately 4.6 billion years ago), that any atoms of these elements that may have existed when the Earth formed have long since decayed. Atoms of synthetic elements only occur on Earth as the product of atomic bombs or experiments that involve nuclear reactors or particle accelerators, via nuclear fusion or neutron absorption.

Atomic mass for natural life is based on weighted average abundance of natural isotopes that occur in the Earth's crust and atmosphere. For synthetic elements, the isotope depends on the means of synthesis, so the concept of natural isotope abundance has no meaning. Therefore, for synthetic elements the total nucleus count (protons plus neutrons) of the most stable isotope, i.e. the isotope with the longest half-life—is listed in brackets as the atomic mass.

Not all radioactive elements are synthetic. For instance, uranium and thorium have no stable isotopes but occur naturally in the Earth's crust and atmosphere. Unstable elements such as polonium, radium, and radon—which form through the decay of uranium and thorium—are also found in nature, despite their short half-lives. Plutonium is an outlier: Its half-life, depending on the isotope, can be as long as 376,000 years. (The principal plutonium isotope in use has a half-life of 24,100 years.)


The first element discovered through synthesis was technetium—its discovery being definitely confirmed in 1936. This discovery filled a gap in the periodic table, and the fact that no stable isotopes of technetium exist explains its natural absence on Earth (and the gap). With the longest-lived isotope of technetium, Tc-98, having a 4.2-million-year half-life, no technetium remains from the formation of the Earth. Only minute traces of technetium occur naturally in the Earth's crust—as a spontaneous fission product of uranium-238 or by neutron capture in molybdenum ores—but technetium is present naturally in red giant stars.

The first discovered synthetic elements were einsteinium and fermium in 1952, by a team of scientists led by Albert Ghiorso in 1952 while studying the radioactive debris from the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb. The isotopes discovered were einsteinium-253, with a half-life of 20.5 days, and fermium-255, with a half-life of about 20 hours.

The discoveries of mendelevium, lawrencium, and nobelium followed. During the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and United States independently discovered rutherfordium and dubnium. The naming and credit for discovery of those elements remained unresolved for many years but eventually shared credit was recognized by IUPAC/IUPAP in 1992. In 1997, IUPAC decided to give dubnium its current name honoring the city of Dubna where the Russian team made their discoveries since American-chosen names had already been used for many existing synthetic elements, while the name rutherfordium (chosen by the American team) was accepted for element 104.

No element with an atomic number greater than 98 has been proven to have any use outside of scientific research, as they have extremely short half-lives. Synthetic elements with an atomic mass greater than 92 have been shown to have little or no use commercially, other than Plutonium, Neptunium, Americium, and Californium.

List of synthetic elements[edit]

The following elements do not occur naturally on Earth. All are transuranium elements and have atomic numbers of 99 and higher.

Element name Chemical
First definite
Einsteinium Es 99 1952
Fermium Fm 100 1952
Mendelevium Md 101 1955
Nobelium No 102 1966
Lawrencium Lr 103 1961
Rutherfordium Rf 104 1966 (USSR), 1969 (USA) *
Dubnium Db 105 1968 (USSR), 1970 (USA) *
Seaborgium Sg 106 1974
Bohrium Bh 107 1981
Hassium Hs 108 1984
Meitnerium Mt 109 1982
Darmstadtium Ds 110 1994
Roentgenium Rg 111 1994
Copernicium Cn 112 1996
Ununtrium Uut 113 2003
Flerovium Fl 114 1999
Ununpentium Uup 115 2003
Livermorium Lv 116 2000
Ununseptium Uus 117 2010
Ununoctium Uuo 118 2002
* Shared credit for discovery.

Other elements usually produced through synthesis[edit]

All elements with atomic numbers 1 through 98 are naturally occurring at least in trace quantities, but the following elements are usually produced through synthesis. Except for francium, they were all discovered through synthesis before being found in nature.

Element name Chemical
First definite
Technetium Tc 43 1936
Promethium Pm 61 1945
Astatine At 85 1940
Francium Fr 87 1939
Neptunium Np 93 1940
Plutonium Pu 94 1940
Americium Am 95 1944
Curium Cm 96 1944
Berkelium Bk 97 1949
Californium Cf 98 1950