The question posed by Lane Labs is not as fanciful as it may appear at first glance. Scientists working at the GSI Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany, have created a new element which could become number 117 in the periodic table – and which has a tenuous connection to milk.
The basic material for the experiment was created at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. An element called berkelium was brought to a specific state and sent to GSI. There, the berkelium isotope was bombarded with calcium ions, which resulted in the creation of element 117.
Element 117 is an atom with 117 protons in its nucleus. Elements naturally found on Earth have a maximum of 104 protons. Any number in excess of that means that the element has been created synthetically in the laboratory. Uranium has 92 protons, and is the heaviest element found naturally, but scientists can artificially create heavier elements by adding protons into an atomic nucleus.
Christoph Dllmann, a professor at the Institute for Nuclear Chemistry at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, told Live Science: "There are predictions that super-heavy elements should exist which are very long-lived. It is interesting to find out if half-lives become long again for very heavy elements, especially if very neutron-rich species are made." He also wondered if there is a limit to the number of protons that can be packed into an atomic nucleus.
The problem is that the more protons and neutrons that are added into an atomic nucleus, the more unstable an atom becomes. The other factor is that these super-heavy elements have a life counted in microseconds, or even nanoseconds, so they are not stable. Nevertheless, Dllmann says that the results of their current research published a few days ago in the journal Physical Review Letters, are a step in the right direction.
In 2010, the first report of the existence of element 117 came from a team of American and Russian scientists working together at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia. Whether or not element 117 will be given a name, and formally accepted as an addition to the table, is dependent upon the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry; this is the worldwide federation charged with standardizing nomenclature in chemistry. It did not accept the findings of these experiments initially, demanding that further research be conducted. The results from Germany are a significant step in the direction of registration.
The fact that calcium was an integral part of the process is interesting, since this is a common substance, which is in use every day in one way or another. The president of Lane Labs commented:
"Calcium is one of the most critical nutrients in the body because it is responsible for many different life-supporting functions," Lane Labs President Andrew Lane says. "People generally think about calcium as something necessary for bone health but it actually is important to regulating heartbeat and maintaining nerve activity, among other important body functions. Because of how versatile it is, it's no shock that calcium is being in used in other exciting scientific applications."
Calcium supplements are a standard treatment for the prevention of bone loss, but calcium use is not confined to that condition. For example, it's an ingredient in many antacids, and doctors also use calcium to control high levels of magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium in the blood.
According to Lane Labs, there is evidence to support the contention that calcium helps maintain healthy blood pressure. It is believed that it can reduce PMS symptoms, as noted by WebMD. Calcium also has been considered for other uses, such as aiding in weight loss. Studies have shown that the people at highest risk of a calcium deficiency are postmenopausal women.
Dairy products are traditionally regarded as a reliable and convenient source of calcium. Lane Labs point out that, unfortunately, people who are lactose intolerant or vegan run an increased risk of calcium deficiency unless they take calcium in another form.
It is possible to get calcium naturally from eating certain foods. Some of the best sources are:
Researchers generally agree that many adults in the US don't get enough calcium daily. Of course, improving one's diet helps. However, for some people, the food they consume does not provide sufficient calcium and, consequently, they may be advised to take calcium supplements.
Lane Labs' calcium supplement, AdvaCAL, has been used in 30 scientific studies. The company understands the potential benefits of calcium in research. The fact that calcium has been used in advanced experiments, such as the development of element 117, opens the door for more scientific discoveries with this mineral in the future.