Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Creating elements
Name:  Brendan
Status:  student
Age:  16
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 2000-2001

How are synthetically created elements made?

The short but not particularly informative answer is in nuclear reactions. Most of these fall into three categories:

1. Nuclear fission. A heavy nucleus splits into smaller parts, usually after capturing a neutron (see number 2). This creates two atomic nuclei with lower atomic numbers. Usually, these quickly decay to stable isotopes, but some become long-lived radioactive elements such as Technetium-99.

2. Neutron capture. A result of nuclear fission in addition to the smaller atoms produced is several neutrons. As a consequence, nuclear reactors, which are powered by nuclear fission reactions, produce energetic neutrons. These can strike an atomic nucleus and add to it. The new nucleus can then beta-decay raise its atomic number (changing one neutron to a proton). This is how elements such as neptunium, plutonium, and americium are made.

3. Proton capture. Proton beams are made in some particle accelerators, and can add to nuclei just as neutrons do. (This is difficult, as the positively-charged proton is electricallly repelled by the positively-charged nucleus.)

Richard E. Barrans Jr., Ph.D.
Assistant Director
PG Research Foundation, Darien, Illinois

Synthetic elements are elements that do not exist in nature. A common way to make them is to shoot a beam of protons or neutrons at a natural element, often uranium. Sometimes extra protons or neutrons go into the atoms, expanding it into a different atom. It is possible to expand it into an atom that doesn't naturally occur. Many atoms made this way break apart almost immediately. A few can stay together long enough to use as radioactive fuel.

Kenneth Mellendorf

Click here to return to the Physics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory