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Modern day alchemy: Making gold from atoms at CERN


The scientists at CERN have achieved what no medieval alchemist could: the creation of gold from very thin air. Glint reports on the technological wonders replicating exploding stars under Swiss mountains

The Secret Book of Artephius gives the Renaissance alchemist clear instructions: “Evaporate the water with a gentle heat, the superfluous humidity of the vinegre, and there will remain the quintessence, potestates or powers of gold in the form of a white oil incombustible. In this oil the philosophers have placed their greatest secrets.”

As astounding now as it would have been to the 16th century alchemist, those secrets have now been revealed. Located at the European Council for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN, is ISOLDE, or the On-line Isotope Mass Separator, a facility that has collided isotopes and, thereby, made gold.

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The process starts with protons being extracted from hydrogen gas and then sped up using electrical fields via ISOLDE’s better known cousin: the Large Hadron Collider. “It’s this huge ring which is about 25km round and there are protons going around the ring, very close to the speed of light,” explains David Jenkins, professor of nuclear physics at York University and one of a number of British scientists working on the project. “At the early stages of their acceleration these protons can get taken to ISOLDE and fired into a different material such as uranium.” The result is the ability to make isotopes, which are elements with additional neutrons.


Setting up ISOLDE AT CERN (copyright open-pho-accep-2016-016-1)

“Of the chemical elements that exist, about ninety or so, about seventy or so can be produced by ISOLDE. You can certainly produce gold and there are experiments that do — but you have to realise that the amount being produced is very, very small. Typically you’ll produce a beam that might have a million, or maybe a billion atoms of gold per second. But the number of atoms in a gram of gold is something like one to the power of twenty-three. So if you divide those two numbers you’ll find the amount of gold you’re producing is tiny, tiny fractions.” Approximately 0.0000000000000001g.

So while the scientists at CERN and ISOLDE can’t claim to be making enough gold to be industrially or economically useful (the cost of actually creating an ingot of gold via this process, would far outweigh the gold’s value), ISOLDE’s contribution to science remains invaluable. For the first time humans have the power to replicate the conditions found inside supernovas where most of the universe’s elements are forged.

Perhaps if the alchemists of yore had known just how complex their task was they would have pursued other avenues of scientific research. The machines at CERN use a billion times more energy than a standard chemical reaction. “When you have that amount of energy you can actually change the nucleus of an atom and turn it from one element to another,” says Jenkins. “Alchemy was essentially modern day chemistry in which you always end up with the elements you start with, so, in short, chemistry or alchemy will never be able to turn one element into another.”

However, perhaps one thing Jenkins and his colleagues have in common with their alchemist forebears is their desire to better humanity through discovery: “Science of this kind is greater than all those preceding because it produces greater utilities,” wrote Roger Bacon in Opus Tertium in 1266. “For not only can it yield wealth and very many other things for the public welfare, but it also teaches how to discover such things as are capable of prolonging human life for much longer periods…”

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Fittingly, the modern day alchemy of ISOLDE is also being used for research into medical science, specifically in developing new cancer therapies, as well as in testing ways to dispose of extremely hazardous, life threatening, materials. Jenkins says the radioactive isotopes left over by the nuclear fission in a nuclear reactor can be bombarded with isotopes in the same way ISOLDE operates. “You might have radioactive isotopes that live for thousands of millions of years and you could bombard them in this way to get something that is only radioactive for twenty years. That’s called nuclear transmutation.”

So what does the future hold in store? Jenkins says the next stage involve a new machine called High Intensity & Energy On-line Isotope Mass Separator, or HIE-ISOLDE, which will be to take the isotopes they’ve made and re-accelerate them into other isotopes, “we can then start reproducing some even more exotic things — ISOLDE will have a good legacy”.

Outside view of ISOLDE

An outside view of ISOLDE (Copyright CERN 201410-212-1)

Top image shows David Jenkins and his team working on ISOLDE  (copyright CERN 201602-031-18)

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