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Modern Alchemy

Nuclear Reactions

Radioactivity is the key to today's alchemy. What happens in a nuclear reactor? Uranium is transmuted into plutonium, caesium, strontium, barium, iodine, krypton and xenon, to name but a few elements. These often decay to other stable elements through various radioactive processes.

Such nuclear reactions are used to produce americium-241 for use in household smoke detectors, technetium-99 for use as a radioactive tracer in health care, and in production of plutonium-239 - the isotope
of plutonium used in nuclear weapons.

Such transmutations are interesting and useful, but what about making gold?

In 1980, Glenn Seaborg was successful in transmuting minute quantities lead to gold, possibly via bismuth. In 1972, Russian scientists found that the lead shielding of an experimental nuclear reactor near Lake Baikal in
Siberia had unexpectedly turned to gold!

Unfortunately such gold is likely to be radioactive, and would decay back to stable lead, whilst releasing dangerous radiation.

A possible route to gold would be from mercury. If mercury of its various naturally occuring isotopes could be made to capture neutrons, the resulting nuclear decay chains would eventually yield gold-197, the most
common naturally occuring gold isotope, and perfectly stable.

The neutrons used in this process would need to have an energy of at least 9 MeV in order for a complete transmutation of the mercury to occur. These energies are well within the capabilities of nuclear reactors
however the gold is likely to be contamiated with other radioisotopes. Particle accelerators could therefore be the alternative...

Particle Acceleration

In modern particle accelerators it is possible to accelerate neutrons to energies of above 9 MeV. This is enough to convert all of a naturally occuring sample of mercury into gold, as noted above.

However, as the atoms of mercury are mostly empty space with a central nucleus, most of the neutrons pass straight through the target. This makes the process of transmutation slow, and highly demanding of energy. The cost of this energy far outweighs the value of the gold produced and the transmutation is therefore not economically viable.

Though particle acceleration may not be an economically viable method to produce gold, its transmuting abilities find applications in other areas.

Nuclear researchers have suggested a type of nuclear reactor which uses a proton beam to create neutrons in fissionable material from spent nuclear fuel. This system would be sub-critical without the source of neutrons but with it becomes a source of energy. At the same time this reduces long lived nuclear waste, with half lives in the order of millions of years, to short lived isotopes, whose half lives are only a few hundred years.

This is an artists impression of what such a mercury transmuting particle acclerator would look like.

This is a schematic of an Accelerator driven Waste Treatment (AWT) reactor as described above.

A problem with this design is the high energy protons required cannot yet be produced in sufficient quantities to drive the reactor.

The Future

It is clear that the future of alchemy, as far as transmutation of elements goes, lies in physics. Indeed the nuclear industry could be considered to be a form of alchemy, as it utilises elemental transmutations on a daily basis.

As for the Philosopher's Stone, is such a material possible? It has been theorised that the fluoride salt of the super heavy element with Z = 126 would be able to release the energy required for the mercury to gold transmutation. Of course, such a super heavy element is still theoretical, but if produced, could be the modern day Philosopher's Stone.

It is unlikely that alchemy will ever be forgotten. It has had such an influence on the development of so much over the years. Especially so in chemistry.

As long as man is still obsessed with wealth and its epitome, gold, the word 'alchemy' and stories of those who claimed they could turn base metals into precious ones will continue to proliferate.