With precious metal prices constantly on the rise, I've been exploring the possibility of making some of my own gold. Making gold is not as difficult as you would imagine, all you need is one alchemist with specific esoteric knowledge or, more realistically, a nuclear reactor capable of nuclear transmutation.
Transmutation of the elements has been explored by men and women a lot longer that you think, while modern methods of transmutation have become simpler due to technological innovations - innovations that are often misleading as to what their true capabilities are.
In March 1924, at the Tokyo Imperial University, Professor Hantaro Nagaoka directed 150,000 volts of electricity at a mercury isotope under a dialectic layer of paraffin oil for four hours in an early experiment with nuclear energy. The purpose was to strike out a hydrogen proton from the nucleus of the mercury and produce a new element, gold. Mercury has 80 protons. Gold, meanwhile, has 79 protons — you see where I’m going with this.The experiment was a success. Professor Hantaro Nagaoka solved the mystery that eluded scientists for centuries, the mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone.
The Philosopher’s Stone is the idea that you could have a magical material that could turn lead, or some very inexpensive metal, into gold. For thousands of years, kings sought out this mythical device, one that could create gold out of common metals. Scientists and alchemists for centuries have been trying to invent one. Even Sir Isaac Newton obsessed over the mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone in the 17th century. However, the English feared the potential devaluation of gold and made the practice of alchemy punishable by death.
If we wish to manufacture gold, the most helpful metal to start with is mercury. Gold is element 79 and mercury is element 80, which means that there is only a slight difference between their atomic structures. The mercury atom has one more proton in its nucleus and the corresponding electron in the outer (known as F shell) orbit.
It is tempting to laugh off medieval alchemists as greedy eccentrics, who sought methods for forming gold out of cheaper metals. But one ought to give them credit for what they did in the process of searching. These alchemists discovered strong acids like hydrochloric acid, nitric acid and sulfuric acid which are far more useful today then gold could possibly be. The alchemists should have been acclaimed for these revolutionary discoveries. Instead they were sneered at for their failure to make gold out of plentiful metals like mercury.
Before Chemistry was a science, there was Alchemy. One of the supreme quests of alchemy is to transmute lead into gold. Lead (atomic number 82) and gold (atomic number 79) are defined as elements by the number of protons they possess. Changing the element requires changing the atomic (proton) number. The number of protons cannot be altered by any chemical means. However, physics may be used to add or remove protons and thereby change one element into another. Because lead is stable, forcing it to release three protons requires a vast input of energy, such that the cost of transmuting it greatly surpasses the value of the resulting gold.
How to make Gold from Mercury
- First, get some mercury. The kind we want is Hg-196, a naturally occurring isotope with 80 protons and 116 neutrons in its nucleus. The 80 protons are what make it mercury. Gold, meanwhile, has 79 protons — you see where I’m going with this. Finding sufficient Hg-196 could take some doing, though, as only 0.15 percent of mercury is in this form.
- Slam a slow neutron into it. Initially I was unsure how one went about this. The journals said the desired type of neutron had an energy level in the thermal range. This to me suggested you could just heat up a can of neutrons on the stove and drop in some mercury. However, I suspected subtleties were being overlooked. I set this matter aside for further study.
- The slow neutron is captured by the nucleus of the Hg-196. This turns it into Hg-197, with 80 protons and 117 neutrons. Hg-197 is unstable. In 64.14 hours, give or take, electron capture occurs. This means the Hg-197 grabs an electron from a low-hanging shell, combines it with a proton to make a neutron, and kicks out a neutrino.
- Discard the neutrino. We have no need of it.
- The Hg-197 has now turned into something with 79 protons and 118 neutrons. Do you know what this? I’ll tell you. It’s Au-197, the only stable isotope of gold.
- Repeat five zillion times, until you have enough gold to make an ingot. Success! However, if you didn’t do so earlier, you must now separate the stable gold deriving from Hg-196 from the unwanted crud deriving from the rest of the mercury, which I remind you constitutes 99.85 percent of what’s out there and a good chunk of which I’ll bet is now radioactive. So it could be a long afternoon.
What about Lead?
Transmutation of lead into gold isn't just theoretically possible - it has been achieved as well. There are reports that Glenn Seaborg, 1951 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, succeeded in transmuting a minute quantity of lead (possibly en route from bismuth, in 1980) into gold. There is an earlier report (1972) in which Soviet physicists at a nuclear research facility near Lake Baikal in Siberia accidentally discovered a reaction for turning lead into gold when they found the lead shielding of an experimental reactor had changed to gold.
Today particle accelerators routinely transmute elements. A charged particle is accelerated using electrical and/or magnetic fields. In a linear accelerator, the charged particles drift through a series of charged tubes separated by gaps. Every time the particle emerges between gaps, it is accelerated by the potential difference between adjacent segments. In a circular accelerator, magnetic fields accelerate particles moving in circular paths. In either case, the accelerated particle impacts a target material, potentially knocking free protons or neutrons and making a new element or isotope. Nuclear reactors also may used for creating elements, although the conditions are less controlled.
In nature, new elements are created by adding protons and neutrons to hydrogen atoms within the nuclear reactor of a star, producing increasingly heavier elements, up to iron (atomic number 26). This process is called nucleosynthesis. Elements heavier than iron are formed in the stellar explosion of a supernova. In a supernova gold may be made into lead, but not the other way around.
While it may never be commonplace to transmute lead into gold, it is practical to obtain gold from lead ores. The minerals galena (lead sulfide, PbS), cerussite (lead carbonate, PbCO3), and anglesite (lead sulfate, PbSO4) often contain zinc, gold, silver, and other metals. Once the ore has been pulverized, chemical techniques are sufficient to separate the gold from the lead. The result is almost alchemy...almost.