Transforming Lead into Gold: Alchemy & Transmutation

Instructor: Allyn Torres

Allyn has taught high school chemistry, and has a master's degree in curriculum and instruction.

In this lesson, you will learn about the history of turning lead into gold. The ancient practice of alchemy and the modern concept of nuclear transmutation will be discussed.

Rumpelstiltskin

Did you know that if you had the proper equipment and knowledge, you could turn lead into gold? Have you ever read the story of Rumpelstiltskin? If you have, this isn't the first time you've heard of the idea of turning something fairly useless into gold. The story makes reference to the practice of alchemy (spinning straw into gold), though it is not stated explicitly. This may be hard to believe, but the concept of this fairy tale isn't so far fetched. Keep reading to learn how!

Alchemy

The first attempts at turning lead into gold were made by alchemists. Alchemy was a spiritual belief system in medieval times that was half experimentation and half magic. Practicers tried to turn less desirable substances into ''high'' metals (like gold and silver). They believed that lead was just a lower form of gold that hadn't been fully matured, so all lead had the ability to become gold. This was not done out of greed typically. Alchemists believed that gold was a spiritually perfect metal, while lead was immature and flawed.

Alchemists used a substance called ''philosopher's stone''. It was supposed to be healing, life prolonging, and have the ability to change one metal into another. Not surprisingly, alchemy was unsuccessful. In our modern world, with all the technology and information we have, alchemy sounds a bit ridiculous. However, in its time, alchemy seemed plausible. Even Isaac Newton researched and wrote about alchemy.

Alchemists believed they could turn lead into gold.
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Nuclear Transmutation

In modern times, it has been discovered that lead can in fact be turned into gold, but not through alchemy, and only in insignificant amounts. Nuclear transmutation involves the use of a particle accelerator to change one element into another. Particle accelerators force two different types of radioactive decay (nuclear reactions that can transform one element to another).

Alpha Decay

Alpha decay involves the emission of an alpha particle from the nucleus of an atom. An alpha particle contains 2 positive protons and 2 neutrons (just like a helium atom). When this happens, the nucleus of the atom loses two protons and two neutrons. Since the number of protons determine the identity of the element, this turns the atom into an atom of a different element. Neutrons only affect the mass of the atom. So, in alpha decay, the atom becomes lighter in mass by 4 amu. For example, if a radium atom (atomic number 88) with a mass of 226 amu undergoes alpha decay, the result will be a radon atom (atomic number 86) with a mass of 222 amu.

Radium can be transmuted into radon through alpha decay.
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Beta Decay

Beta decay involves a change in the number of protons (and therefore the atomic number) in an atom by 1, but does not affect the mass of the atom. There are three types of beta decay.

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