Turning anything other than gold into the precious ‘noble’ metal has been one of the dreams of alchemists -- along with creating an elixir for immortality -- since alchemy began some 4,000 years ago across three continents. Since people today are trying to get rich by turning electricity into bitcoin, one could assume that the lead-or-straw-to-gold transformation hasn’t yet been achieved. That would have been correct until recently when physicists in the Czech Republic turned water into a shiny golden metal. Was it gold? Are they rich? Is it time to pull out of bitcoin? (You might want to check with Elon Musk first.)
Wait a minute! Any liquid can become metallic when placed under enough pressure! Physics 101!
Yes, junior physicists – you are correct. However, as the study published this week in the journal Nature points out, no laboratory can afford the equipment to do this. In fact, the only place in the solar system where it's possible to pressurize liquid into metal would be in the centers of the massive planets Neptune and Uranus, where water has been pressurized into a solid metallic core. Pavel Jungwirth, a physical chemist at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague and co-author of the study, decided there had to be another way. According to the press release, he theorized that he could turn water into a solid metal by borrowing electrons from alkali metals such as sodium and potassium.
Wait a minute! Don’t alkali metals tend to explode when mixed with water?
Correct again, junior bomb-maker. Jungwirth and his team took the precaution of slowing down the reaction time between alkali and water by mixing liquid sodium and potassium in a syringe at room temperature, then placing it in a vacuum. Droplets were squeezed out gently into water vapor. As the water condensed in a .1 micrometer thick layer, its electrons quickly became diffused with the positive metallic ions in the alkali droplet. In seconds, the water layer turned golden.
Gold! Sell the bitcoin and buy a vacuum and some syringes!
Not so fast, junior alchemist. The gold-colored layer was analyzed using optical reflection and synchrotron X-ray photoelectron spectroscopies and found to definitely be shiny, golden and metallic – but not gold. On the positive side, Jungwirth and his colleagues – both those working on the project and others in the lab – were more excited about not blowing themselves up. Jungwirth and team member chemist Phil Mason conducted a similar risky experiment in 2015 to discover the mechanism that makes sodium explode when it touches water and were forced to conduct in on a balcony, chasing off people using it for smoking. Peter Edwards, a chemist at the University of Oxford who was not involved with the experiment but reviewed the results, was impressed with the latest one.
“They have managed to get to a quasi-steady state such that the physics of metallization wins over chemical decomposition.”
In other word, close and impressive on the explosion prevention side, but no cigar.
Should we keep our bitcoin?
That’s up to you and your financial advisor or teen friend who’s already a bitcoin millionaire on paper. It may be risky but it’s still safer than mixing alkali metals and water.