Turning common metals like copper into gold — it’s been the quest of alchemists for as long as there was alchemy. A group of scientists in China claim they have finally attained this goal … although the end result may be more of a utilitarian than a noble metal. Before you start hoarding copper, it’s important to understand exactly what kind of gold they’ve created and whether it will fool your girlfriend.
In a press release this week, the Chinese Academy of Sciences describes the work of Dr. Sun Jian of the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics (DICP), who led a team that pursued the answer to the question: Can we change the chemical properties of an element by regulating its electron structure?
The answer is … well, let’s start at the beginning. Dr. Lian’s team used an oddly-named chemical process called sputtering, in which particles are ejected from a solid target material by bombardment with energetic particle whose kinetic energy is much higher than conventional thermal energies. In the case, the target of the sputtering was copper and the bombardier was high energy argon plasma ionized by an electrical current.
Once “sputtered,” the copper was then exposed to oxidation and “frozen” at zero valence (a measure of combining power with other atoms). The end result was a metal with the noble-metal-like behavior of gold. (For a more detailed look at how they accomplished this, read the study “Freezing copper as a noble metal–like catalyst for preliminary hydrogenation” in Science Advances.)
So, how close to real gold is this ‘gold’? According to the South China Morning Post, the researchers used the ‘gold’ as a catalyst to turn coal to alcohol, a difficult chemical process that only precious metals can handle efficiently. And?
“The copper nano particles achieved catalytic performance extremely similar to that of gold or silver. The results … proved that after processing, metal copper can transform from ‘chicken’ to ‘phoenix’.”
How about copper rags to gold riches? Cheap jewelry to suitable for anniversaries? That’s where this latest version of alchemist gold doesn’t carry its weight. The new metal retains the density of copper, which is much different than gold. So, it won’t fool your girlfriend or wife but it will fool the electrical processes inside smartphones and other electronic equipment which require large amounts of gold components – the report estimates that 40 smartphones can contain as much gold as a ton of ore. In this case, the team reports that the ‘gold’ works perfectly.
“(It is) like a warrior with golden armour in a battlefield, capable of withstanding any enemy assault.”
And that, despite what the jewelry business wants you to believe, is where the real money is being spent when it comes to gold. Will sputtered copper cause a rise in gold counterfeiting? Fortunately, no. Will it do well enough as industrial ‘gold’ to reduce the corrupt, polluting, child-labor-abusing gold mining industries? Let’s hope so.
Will it fool your beloved? If that’s your goal, you’re about to learn the painful lesson that she’s far smarter than a smartphone.