So one of our readers asked us this question the other day, Can modern chemistry produce gold? Reading about alchemy and got me wondering. We can produce diamonds, but can we produce gold?
We can, it’s just highly, highly impractical. Creating diamond is relatively straightforward, we just have to convert carbon from one form to another. For that all you have to do is to take cheap graphite, heat it up under high pressures, and voilà, you get diamond.
Creating gold on the other hand is a different beast altogether since now we have to convert one element into another. The big difference between diamonds and gold is that gold is a (somewhat rare) basic element. Diamonds are a specific form of a (very, very common) element: carbon.
Now techniques do exist that allow us to achieve such a transformation using nuclear reactors or particle accelerators, but they are neither easy nor cheap. Probably the most “practical” method reported to date was the work of Seaborg and coworkers (paper). Their approach was to take sheets of bismuth, bombard them with high energy ions, and see what came out. Among the mess that resulted, they were able to detect trace amounts of various unstable gold isotopes from the radioactivity they gave off. The researchers also suspected that some of the stable gold isotope (Au-197) was also there, but they couldn’t measure it directly.
Even though Seaborg was successful in creating gold, he didn’t exactly stumble on a practical industrial process. When asked about the practicality of his work, Seaborg said that given the cost of the experiment, creating a gram of gold would have cost on the order of a quadrillion dollars (in 1980 dollars too!). Needless to say, it still makes far more sense for us just to use the gold that supernovas produced for us than to try to repeat the process ourselves.