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Ltryptophan's avatar

How is gold made?

Asked by Ltryptophan (9112 points ) January 12th, 2012

How is gold formed? Why can’t we turn lead into gold? What would it take to configure an atom like a recipe?

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14 Answers

Tropical_Willie's avatar

“F U S I O N” – - – like in the super Nova. Just wait for the next super Nova and go out and collect the gold.

PhiNotPi's avatar

Gold, like most other elements, was formed long ago by stars, supernovae, and other powerful cosmic events. The basis for the formation of any element from another is simple: take any two atoms and squish them together with enough force so that their nuclei actually fuse.

The first element was hydrogen, which sort of formed on its own because it is so simple. The pressure at the center of stars can compress hydrogen so forcefully that it overcomes the electrical repulsion of the nuclei and the nuclei bond due to the weak force. Depending on what atoms you are making from what, this process could either release energy or destroy it according to E=MC^2. The heavier the atom, the less energy is released, until you get to around iron, after which fusion loses energy.

Stars would fuse hydrogen into helium, then start to fuse helium, then fuse that element, until they produce iron, after which the star dies. Depending on the size of the star, there would then be a supernova, which would disperse these elements into the surrounding space. The power of a supernova, caused by the collapse and then rebound of the star due to gravity, could fuse iron into other things, and then fuse those elements. Gold, uranium, and many metals would be created this way.

All of the gold on Earth was formed this way.

Humans are able to make gold by using particle accelerators, which can speed up particles to a large fraction of the speed of light. We can then shoot a beam of atom A into a target of atom B, and some of the atoms would fuse and become gold. We are only capable of producing a very, very small amount of gold.

We have used particle accelerators in the past to create many synthetic elements that are so radioactive that they fall apart almost instantly, which is why they do not otherwise exist in the universe.

Ltryptophan's avatar

Bottom line is we can make gold. lol…

Is there any way that some unknown trick could do this in an alchemists’ lab one thousand years ago?

PhiNotPi's avatar

@Ltryptophan Nope. The type of reactions that alchemy did (not what they believed to do, but what they actually did) were all chemical reactions, a couple orders of magnitude shy of nuclear fusion. Alchemists actually did one of two things when trying to make gold: create an alloy that looked like there was gold in it, or just purify gold that was already there but bonded in a way that was unrecognizable to them.

Also, by “very, very small amount”, I mean a couple millionths of a gram in total.

Ltryptophan's avatar

Why can’t we change lead?

King_Pariah's avatar

Oh, we probably could, it’s just not cost effective considering the amount of energy necessary for that to happen.

PhiNotPi's avatar

@Ltryptophan To answer this question, we have to figure out what other element has to be fused with lead to make gold.

Gold usually has 79 protons and 117 neutrons (all other forms are radioactive). Lead has 82 protons and 125 neutrons. This is the problem: lead is heavier than gold. Fusing lead will not help us get gold because we have to take protons and neutrons away from lead to make gold, while fusion only makes stuff bigger.

This also means that we could probably fuse gold into lead.

thorninmud's avatar

Lead can be transformed into gold by knocking away three of its protons. This can—and does—happen in particle accelerators. It was once discovered that the lead lining of an experimental Soviet reactor contained some gold as a result of constant particle bombardment.

PhiNotPi's avatar

We cannot fuse anything with gold to make lead, either. The atom that needs to be fused with gold would have 3 protons and 8 neutrons. This would be lithium 11, which would be very unstable.

@thorninmud That is neat, but probably very inefficient (then again, so would any other type of fusion using particle accelerators).

thorninmud's avatar

@PhiNotPi Exactly. Because lead is quite stable, the amount of energy required to knock out those protons is enormous, costing far more than whatever gold would be created.

PhiNotPi's avatar

@thorninmud And you have to make sure those extra 8 neutrons go somewhere, too. All forms of gold above Au197 decay by beta decay, which causes it to not be gold anymore.

Ltryptophan's avatar

So if we can generate lots of free energy, then we can also create lots of gold right?

PhiNotPi's avatar

@Ltryptophan Yes, but we don’t have lots of free energy. With enough energy, we could probably do anything.

mattbrowne's avatar

Here’s a good overview

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R-process

Not all types of supernovae are capable of creating gold, let alone uranium.

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