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New Table delivers element of surprise

Media release

For the first time in a century, the release of a new Table of Standard Atomic Weights of the Elements could change the way students, chemists and scientists the world-over approach chemistry.

Promising to start 2011’s International Year of Chemistry with a bang, the 15-year project to form the new cornerstone chemical data set was put in motion in 1985 by a working group established by Curtin University’s late Emeritus Professor John de Laeter.

Dr Robert Loss, of Curtin’s Department of Imaging and Applied Physics, said research performed at the John de Laeter Centre (JDLC) for Mass Spectrometry contributed to the unravelling of small but significant variations in atomic weights.

To explain the significance of these changes, Dr Loss said a small variation in elements could change the way society understood common items, as well as helping to accurately determine sources of heavy metal pollution and the precise origin of various foods and wines.

“The variations of the atomic weights of at least 10 elements have become so significant that they can no longer legitimately be expressed as a single number but now need to be expressed as an interval. This can make all the difference,” Dr Loss said.

“Whether it’s studying climate change by the variation of heavy metals isotopes in wombat teeth or the ages of rock and ores using uranium and lead isotopes, both can be thought of as a variation in the atomic weight.”

Dr Loss said the work of accurately measuring atomic weights had traditionally been undertaken by laboratories in the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia. But more recently, many chemists, earth scientists and medical researchers had used atomic weight variations as part of their normal work.

“The new Table will serve as a reminder for scientists to measure the atomic weight of the element they are interested in before committing to any firm scientific conclusions,” he said.

“For science teachers it will require some critical thinking about where atomic weights come from, how they are used, the rich tapestry of the science behind them, and their ever increasing applications.”

Dr Loss said the new Table was made possible, in part, by the major contribution of Curtin’s late Professors’ John de Laeter and Kevin Rosman, who directly measured the atomic weights of a dozen elements.

The new Table is available courtesy of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry’s (IUPAC) International Commission on Isotopic Abundances and Atomic Weights (CIAAW). Visit


Dr Robert D Loss
Department of Imaging and Applied Physics, Curtin University
Tel: 08 9266 7192; Email:

Andrea Barnard, Public Relations, Curtin University
Tel: 08 9266 4241, Mobile: 0401 103 755, Email: