For the first time in history, a change will be made to the atomic weights of some elements listed on the Periodic table of the chemical elements posted on walls of chemistry classrooms and on the inside covers of chemistry textbooks worldwide.
The new table, outlined in a report released this month, will express atomic weights of 10 elements – hydrogen, lithium, boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen,silicon, sulfur, chlorine and thallium – in a new manner that will reflect more accurately how these elements are found in nature.
“For more than a century and a half, many were taught to use standard atomic weights — a single value — found on the inside cover of chemistry textbooks and on the periodic table of the elements. As technology improved, we have discovered that the numbers on our chart are not as static as we have previously believed,” says Dr. Michael Wieser, an associate professor at the University of Calgary, who serves as secretary of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry’s (IUPAC) Commission on Isotopic Abundances and Atomic Weights. This organization oversees the evaluation and dissemination of atomic-weight values.
Modern analytical techniques can measure the atomic weight of many elements precisely, and these small variations in an element’s atomic weight are important in research and industry. For example, precise measurements of the abundances of isotopes of carbon can be used to determine purity and source of food, such as vanilla and honey. Isotopic measurements of nitrogen, chlorine and other elements are used for tracing pollutants in streams and groundwater. In sports doping investigations, performance-enhancing testosterone can be identified in the human body because the atomic weight of carbon in natural human testosterone is higher than that in pharmaceutical testosterone.
The atomic weights of these 10 elements now will be expressed as intervals, having upper and lower bounds, reflected to more accurately convey this variation in atomic weight. The changes to be made to the Table of Standard Atomic Weights have been published in Pure and Applied Chemistry and a companion article in Chemistry International.