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Magnesium is a soft, gray metal that — along with oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur — helps form all living things. It’s also highly flammable, which is why it dazzles students in chemistry class when they burn strips of the material. The element has a Pauling atomic radius of 1.015 pm, making it one of the smaller elements with an orbiting electron.
Like most of the universe’s elements, magnesium is made in stars and found on Earth because those long-dead stellar giants exploded as supernovae and seeded interstellar clouds that were later incorporated into our solar system. Most of the magnesium found on Earth is a version called Mg-24, which has 12 neutrons — particles with neutral charge — in its nucleus and thus an atomic mass of 24.
Using the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, or NSCL, at MSU’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, an international team led by Kyle Brown, an assistant professor of chemistry, has produced the lightest version of this isotope ever seen. The discovery, published in Physical Review Letters on Dec. 22, could help refine theories and models scientists develop to explain where the elements that make up the world around us came from.
The team used negative TIMS, which can detect ions that are attracted to the target by their chemical charge and spin, to measure Mg-24 in synthetic olivine samples. They showed that differences in Mg isotope compositions among the samples were caused by a combination of factors. The most important factor is the position of the isotope within the molecule. If the isotope is close to the molecule’s core, hydrophobic interactions (e.g., between the bonded water molecules in the mobile phase and the hydrophobic stationary phase) are stronger than for an isotope that’s farther away.