“The ancient study of alchemy is concerned with making the Sorcerer’s Stone, a legendary substance with astonishing powers. The stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.”
– Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
This summer marks the 20th anniversary the world was first introduced to the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published on June 26, 1997. (In 1998, the book was released in the United States as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The publishers thought the name change would attract more American readers.)
Happy 20th Anniversary, Harry Potter readers.
Now let’s get to some science.
In the Harry Potter series, the sorcerer’s stone is described as blood-red that could not only turn any ordinary metal into gold, but produce the Elixir of Life, which would allow to drinker to extend their lifespan. The dark wizard Lord Voldemort attempts to make a comeback by stealing the stone to grant him life, but he is thwarted by the young eleven-year-old wizard Harry Potter with the help of his friends Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley.
If that above paragraph is a spoiler for you, stop reading this post immediately and go read the Harry Potter series.
The sorcerer’s stone in Harry Potter is actually based on history and legend of the “philosopher’s stone.” Like the stone in Harry Potter, this philosopher’s stone could turn metal such as zinc and lead into precious metals such as silver and gold. Also like the Harry Potter version, this stone could produce an elixir of life that would cure illness and prolong life. Unlike the Harry Potter version, the sorcerer’s stone wasn’t necessarily an actual stone- it was simply an unknown substance that would have these extraordinary properties.
Alchemy was the “field of study” concerned with finding the philosopher’s stone. From the Middle Ages to the late 17th century, alchemists studied substances in their labs in their quest to find the philosopher’s stone. The work of these alchemists led to the foundation of chemistry. In fact, many prominent scientists and mathematicians were alchemists, including Robert Boyle, who is attributed with removing mysticism from alchemy to create experiments based on measurements and data; Sir Isaac Newton, who laid the foundations of classical mechanics with his three laws of motion; and Tycho Brahe, who developed instruments for more accurate astronomical observations.
Another alchemist was Nicolas Flamel, a French bookseller and notary from Paris who claimed he was successful in turning lead into gold in 1382. While he may or may not have actually done that, Flamel did become wealthy around that time. And yes, Nicolas Flamel was referenced in the Harry Potter series as an accomplished alchemist who made the sorcerer’s stone.
But this is all fiction and myth, right? You can’t really turn ordinary metal into gold… Right?
It turns out that some people have developed techniques to turn other substances into gold. Except we don’t call them alchemists- we call them nuclear scientists.
Nuclear transmutation is the process of turning one element or isotope into another element or isotope. Unstable atoms or nuclei will naturally undergo radioactive decay and turn into something else. We can artificially change atoms and nuclei in the lab by using specialized machines such as particle accelerators or reactors.
Take commercial nuclear power reactors, for example. In uranium-fueled reactors, the uranium is bombarded with neutrons. If an atom of uranium-235 (one possible isotope of uranium) absorbs a neutron, it will fission, breaking into smaller particles and neutrons which can then be absorbed by other uranium-235 atoms, sustaining the reaction. This process releases energy, which is used to make electricity. Essentially, you could say that uranium is being turned into other elements, such as cesium or rubidium.
You can also achieve nuclear transmutation with particle accelerators. Particle accelerators use electromagnetic fields to accelerate charged particles such as protons, electrons, or even nuclei to high energies. Scientists can smash these particles into each other or on fixed targets to create something different.
This is actually what my current research is based on. Using two particle accelerators known as cyclotrons, I smashed sulfur fragments on a beryllium target. This heavy-ion collision fragmentation created a variety of other fragments, including carbon, oxygen, and neon. That’s right- I turned one element into others.
But what about turning stuff into precious metals, such as gold?
Around 1980, a research group from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) used a particle accelerator to create beams of carbon and neon moving at nearly the speed of light. They smashed these beams on bismuth foil targets. When the fast lighter particles collided with the bismuth, they broke off part of the bismuth atoms. Each bismuth atom contains 83 protons. If a bismuth atom loses four protons, it turns into gold. To determine if gold was created, the researchers measured radiation from the decay of unstable gold atoms. The reaction produced only a tiny amount of gold.
If it’s possible, why don’t we make gold with particle accelerators?
Dave Morrissey, one of the LBNL researchers who now work at Michigan State University, explained, “It is relatively straightforward to convert lead, bismuth or mercury into gold. The problem is the rate of production is very, very small and the energy, money, etcetera expended will always far exceed the output of gold atoms.”
So we can make gold, but it’s not the most practical method. Glenn Seaborg, another researcher on the LBNL team and a winner of the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, once claimed that it would cost over one quadrillion dollars to produce just an ounce of gold using the particle accelerator, compared to the $560 market rate for an ounce of gold at the time.
Forget Hogwarts- if you want to do magic, become a scientist.
Keep calm and science on.