Heavy atom spills its guts in decade-long experiment

Wielding proton beams and lasers, physicists have for the first time unlocked one of the key secrets of the rarest naturally occurring element on Earth: astatine.

Astatine is a “halogen,” meaning it shares chemical properties with fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine (all elements that typically bind with metals to form salts). But with 85 protons, it’s heavier than lead and is extraordinarily rare on Earth — the rarest of the elements that occur naturally in Earth’s crust, according to chemist John Emsley’s 2011 book “Nature’s Building Blocks” (Oxford University Press). It forms from decaying uranium and thorium, and its most stable version, or isotope, (called astatine-210) has a half life of just 8.1 hours — so if you found a stash of it in the morning, half of it would be gone by the evening.

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