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Science that was used in the Middle Ages with the goal of changing ordinary metals into gold

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Making Gold from Lead

Making Gold from Lead

Credit: edenpictures
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/edenpictures/9769105003
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Modern chemistry began in part because people wanted to get rich.  Kings and other rulers were willing to pay good money to get even more money. Alchemists claimed to be able to make gold (a rare metal) from lead (a very common metal).  They weren’t successful, but today it is possible to change lead into gold.

Amazing But True!

  • The alchemists used chemical methods to try to make gold from lead.  They were searching for the Philosopher’s Stone – that “magic” stuff – to make valuable gold from a much more abundant (and less useful) metal, lead.  They were never successful, but modern nuclear chemistry and physics has been able to achieve this change.
  • By colliding neutrons with lead atoms, the neutron knocks off protons to form a gold atom.  Where do we get those neutrons? From a particle accelerator that speeds up neutrons to give them more energy when they collide with an atom.  There is only one problem - the process costs more to run than the value of the gold formed.  So, it can be done, but you will go broke in the process.
  • The reason that gold is so sought after in today's economy is because it holds its value very well. It is often thought of as the "safe" investment, especially during economic recessions and downturns. 
  • Credit: EpSos .de
    Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/epsos/9032195005/
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    Today gold can be purchased as jewelry, coins, and gold bars [Figure2]

  • Watch this video to learn the basics of nuclear transmutation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKXiUuGIidI

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With the links below, learn more about making gold from lead.  Then answer the following questions.

  1. Why did the alchemists have to conduct their research in secret?
  2. What are the atomic numbers of lead and gold? What has to happen to a lead atom to convert it to a gold atom?
  3. What other elements could be converted to gold?
  4. What is one hazard associated with modern methods of making gold from other elements?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: edenpictures; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/edenpictures/9769105003; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: EpSos .de; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/epsos/9032195005/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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