For centuries, people have tried to find a method to produce gold, one of the most valuable materials in the world. Gold has been the primary method of currency for centuries, perhaps even millennia. Once, it backed United States currency, though those does are behind the country. Gold is universally valuable for its rarity and its beauty.
Due to these qualities, people have always wanted more of it. But due to its scarcity, many smart people tried to figure out a way to chemically produce more of it. In medieval and renaissance time periods, people attempted to figure out how to turn a variety of materials into gold. These people were called alchemists. Chief among their experiments was trying to turn lead, a very heavy, dense, common material into gold. The goal being immense riches and fame from the discovery. Unfortunately for these alchemists, transmuting one material into another is nearly impossible, if not totally impossible, especially for the technology they had access to at the time.
Alchemists, while they never did figure out how to transmute gold, did make several astoundingly useful discoveries. In their desperate search, alchemists invented strong acids like hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, and sulfuric acid, all very useful, powerful chemicals we still use today. Unfortunately, they were not lauded for these discoveries. Instead, they were ridiculed for failing to do something we still struggle to do today.
Theoretically speaking, if a scientist today wanted to turn an element into gold, they would use the element closest to it on the periodic table. This metal is mercury, which is element 80 on the periodic table while gold is element 79. This closeness essentially means there is very little difference between their atomic structures. Mercury has one more proton in its nucleus and an electron in its outer orbital shell.
In order to turn mercury into gold, the extra electron and proton need to go. If successful, the element would theoretically stabilize and become a gold atom. The process is intensely difficult because of something called the strong force. The strong force is one of the four fundamental forces of nature. The other three are the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and the gravitational force. The strong force governs the smallest area (the nucleus of an atom) but is by far the strongest of the four forces. Breaking or changing the strong force is essentially occur during nuclear fission and fusion, both which require and produce massive amounts of energy.
In order to peel off a proton from the nucleus of a mercury atom, and thus lose the unneeded electron, 80 orbits of electrons need to be passed, as well as overcome the strong force of the nucleus overcome. No small feat. But it has been done. Years ago, at the Physical-Technical State Institute of Berlin, scientists produced a microscopically small, but definitively observable, real amount of gold from mercury.
These scientists accomplished this feat by bombarding the mercury nucleus with particles propelled at incredibly high speeds. These particles gained the energy needed to attain these speeds through a generated field of 30,000 volts – a massive amount of energy. Unfortunately, while the experiment did technically work, it is not repeatable on a commercial scale.
Chemistry is a fascinating subject that has produced many wonders of medicine, utility, and protection over the years. Most new foods were carefully designed by a food chemist, using the chemical properties of edible foods to create something new. Biochemical scientists are constantly finding new ways to shore up the body’s defenses and create cures for deadly diseases. They are the frontline of the human race, our first line of defense against some of nature’s deadliest killers. Are you interested in chemistry? Here are some products to get you started!
- Does iron increase in weight when it rusts?
- Why does iron sink in water but floats on mercury?
- How is Einstein’s theory of relativity responsible for the color of gold?
- Did medieval alchemists have magical powers to form gold out of cheaper metals?
- Which is the softest mineral that has been given the lowest rating of 1 on Mohs scale of mineral hardness?