The Alchemists Were Right (Sort Of)

By Debra Kelly on Friday, February 13, 2015
alchemy
“The matter lies before the eyes of all; everybody sees it, touches it, loves it, but knows it not. It is glorious and vile, precious and of small account, and is found everywhere [. . .] But, to be brief, our Matter has as many names as there are things in this world; that is why the foolish know it not.” —The Golden Tract concerning the Philosopher’s Stone in the Musaeum Hermeticum

In A Nutshell

Alchemy was, at its heart, the science of trying to find a way to turn lead or other common metals into gold. While they never quite got there, today, we have. With the help of a particle accelerator, it’s completely possible to turn lead into gold—a tiny, tiny, tiny amount of gold, but it’s gold nonetheless. While that’s not very practical, scientists are now going in another direction. By changing the properties of ordinary metals into the properties of rarer, more expensive catalysts, they have the potential to revolutionize not only the mining industry, but every industry that relies on rare, precious, or expensive metals.

The Whole Bushel

The alchemists were right.

It is completely possible to turn lead into gold . . . but there’s a better option.

For centuries, alchemists tried and failed to turn lead into gold. The problem wasn’t with the theory, but with their understanding of how metals worked. In ancient alchemy, gold wasn’t the final goal because it would make people insanely rich, it was the goal because it was thought to be as close to perfection as mankind could get. Gold was completely evolved, it was the symbol of regeneration, and it was a symbol of the triumph over evil. Creating gold was for a much loftier reason than just monetary wealth, and there was a reason they were trying often to make it out of lead.

Lead was common enough, but that’s not the point, either. Lead also represented everything that was the opposite of gold. It was lowly, dark, evil, and it was the most base of base metals. Turning it into gold was more than the transformation of something cheap into something expensive, it was turning something evil into something godly.

Alchemists that were working on the problem were looking at it in terms of the four fundamental elements—earth, air, fire, and water.

What they really needed was a particle accelerator.

At the particle accelerator at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, researchers have been able to turn bismuth, a near-lead-like material, into tiny, tiny bits of gold. The bits of gold are so tiny that the only way they could measure them was by using the radiation given off by the new element as it slowly decayed. Smashing bismuth with a high-speed particle essentially sheared off a bit of gold. While they can definitely say they turned one element into another and caught the centuries-old dream of performing alchemy, it’s really not anywhere near profitable—the whole endeavor cost around $120,000.

More recently, though, researchers from Princeton University might have found a way to make alchemy practical. Experimental chemistry has found a way to combine iron atoms with organic molecules, creating a catalyst that will ultimately act in the same way as some pretty expensive materials (like cobalt and platinum) that are used to jump-start chemical reactions like the ones in batteries.

The implications are staggering and could eventually be used to fuel something else—global energy. Researchers are using some of the same principles to take nitrogen from the air and convert it into other forms like fuel and fertilizer. Suddenly, there might not be the need for large-scale mining, or the use of incredibly expensive components when ordinary, base metals can fulfill the same role with the minimal amount of conversion.

Let’s review. For centuries, mankind has labored to turn one metal into another, but science eventually said otherwise. Along the way, though, alchemists made incredible contributions to modern science and laid the groundwork for modern chemistry. Now modern-day scientists used that groundwork to bring it full circle.

Show Me The Proof

Scientific American: Fact or Fiction?: Lead Can Be Turned into Gold
LiveScience: What is Alchemy?
NY Times: A Chemist Comes Very Close to a Midas Touch