Tennessee Gets a Place at the Table with Newest Element: Tennessine

One of the newest members of the periodic table will likely have a familiar sound to it, even if the spelling might be a bit off: Tennessine.

Proposed as a nod to researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Vanderbilt University, and UT who helped confirm its existence, element 117 would be only the second to be named for a state. Since the name Tennessee has its origins in the name of the Cherokee village of Tanasi, it also becomes the first element with Native American roots.


The International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry formally verified the discovery and has now put forth the name Tennessine—pronounced to rhyme with green—for public comment.

Robert Grzywacz, director of the UT-ORNL Joint Institute for Nuclear Physics and Applications and a physics professor at UT, served as UT’s connection to the project. Grzywacz helped develop a process that measures the decay of nuclear materials down to one millionth of a second, which was vital in proving the existence of the new element.

“We are beyond proud that the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has played a role in confirming this discovery and that our great state may have a permanent place in the periodic table,” said Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek. “We congratulate and applaud the efforts of Dr. Grzywacz and the researchers involved in the discoveries. We look forward to celebrating this milestone in the university’s history.”

International rules specify that elements can be named after mythology, minerals, a place, a property, or a scientist. Californium is the only other element named for a US state.

“Being part of such a key moment in science was special for our team, but to have permanent recognition of our contribution in this way goes beyond words,” Grzywacz said.

Tennessine would join other members of Group 17, commonly known as the halogens, on the periodic table. Other members of that group are fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine, and astatine.

Cheek noted that the development highlights the possibilities created when ORNL and institutions such as UT work together, and the opportunities available for graduate students at both.

Grzywacz, who was a Wigner Fellow at ORNL, worked with UT postdoctoral researchers David Miller and Nathan Brewer to refine the testing device to such a level that it could be used to accurately detect elements such as the four new additions to the table, which were announced by a multinational collaboration in January.

The other new elements number 113, 115, and 118. Together with element 117, they complete the seventh row of the periodic table and are considered super-heavy elements.

“Super-heavy element research is a major challenge because synthesizing them is very difficult, but it’s also a key aspect of nuclear physics,” said Grzywacz. “It is extremely labor intensive and time consuming, so being able to bring in experts to the collaboration helps tremendously.”

In addition to Tennessine (Ts), element 113 has been proposed as Nihonium (Nh) in honor of Japan, element 115 as Moscovium (Mc) in honor of Moscow, Russia, and 118 as Oganesson (Og) in honor of Yuri Oganessian, a pioneering researcher of super-heavy elements.


Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)