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B Turning Elements into other Elements

  1. Oct 26, 2016 #1
    Hello everyone,

    My name is Ramon and I just had an idea. Do you think it will be possible in our time to turn elements into other elements?

    For example rearranging the atoms that make hydrogen or H2O into gold.

    The reason I was thinking of this is because if we can create a resource we can cut the cost of other resources, thus creating a practically free world.

    Another example will be if we are short on chickens and we clone a chicken we are no longer short.

    However, I was wondering how hard will it be in able to achieve this on an atomic scale?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 26, 2016 #2


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    It is now. It's not practical; but, it is possible.
  4. Oct 26, 2016 #3


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    I have changed the thread label from Advanced to Basic.

    It can and has been done: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_transmutation

    You have to include the cost of producing those resources. In this case, the cost is higher than any mining operation to get more resources. (Even mining asteroids would probably be cheaper.)
  5. Oct 26, 2016 #4

    Wow, thanks for the link. Is there a reason why they havent pursued this much? I mean if you can master this you can pretty much create anything. Also, what careers will allow someone to pursue this mastery?
  6. Oct 26, 2016 #5

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    There you go.
  7. Oct 26, 2016 #6
    Why not make it more aware? This seems like the root of science where we can now have more resources in life. Think, if they make it public and ask for donations and show example of what this future can provide through this type of research people can then donate. No point waiting for government or someone else. Already people donate to the lottery and if this is made public or a necessity I mean they can even take a dollar or 2 out of your paycheck towards this type of research.
  8. Oct 26, 2016 #7


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    Haven't you read my post? The energy requirements are huge, and it is not cost efficient, far from it. It is also not efficient: to quote from Wikipedia
    People are not going to donate to build a particle accelerator at a cost of billions of dollars to make a few thousand atoms of gold.
  9. Oct 26, 2016 #8


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    Certain isotopes are in fact made in accelerators and reactors via nuclear transmutation. For example, heavy elements that don't exist in nature, like Curium, Berkelium, Californium. To give you a sense of scale, only about 35–50 mg of Cm is produced each year. As another example 99Mo is produced in nuclear reactions (neutron capture from 98Mo), which decays to 99Tc for medical imaging.

    However, these isotopes are only made via nuclear transmutation because there is no other way of doing it. Consequently, these materials are incredibly expensive. Gold is cheap in comparison. If you can get a material via mining and purification, it is almost invariably cheaper.

    The field of study that concerns itself with this is that of nuclear physics.
  10. Oct 26, 2016 #9
    So yes, we do know how elements can be made from other elements.
    However there is not a way to do that which makes sense economically.
    Hydrogen to Helium fusion is practical because a lot of energy is produced, and Helium has it's uses,
    but we still are not there yet.
    Last edited: Oct 26, 2016
  11. Oct 26, 2016 #10
    I appreciate your response. I didn't think the cost will be billions for just a few thousand atoms of gold, or any other element. It simply amazes me that it's that expensive for something that can actually be very beneficial if mastered.
  12. Oct 26, 2016 #11

    Vanadium 50

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    More like millions, but that's still $1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 per gram.

    Gold is expensive because it's rare. If you had a machine that could make it cheaply, it wouldn't be expensive any more.
  13. Oct 26, 2016 #12

    I see, the gold is just an example for creating other elements we are currently lacking. Just basically playing with imagination haha. I appreciate all of your inputs, I am aware that there is profit on limited resources and government funding and so on, but perhaps you guys can come together in a secret lab and just make it happen haha.
    All jokes aside, I appreciate the information.
  14. Oct 27, 2016 #13


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    It's not expensive because we don't know how to do it, or because we're greedy, it's expensive because of good physical rules.

    Let's use gold as an example, and do an estimation of the cost of making gold. One way to make gold in nuclear reactions would be by pulling a proton from 198Hg. First problem: 198Hg makes up 10 % of natural mercury. Mercury is US$17.4 per kg, call it $20, so you've got to buy $200 worth of Hg to get 1Kg of 198Hg. Let's assume you're not willing to use isotopic mercury, because that'll be several orders of magnitude more expensive than gold (likely tens of thousands of dollars a gram), so we'll have to worry about the other isotopes later. But that's pretty cheap compared to gold, so far so good.

    Let's use a triton beam. Why? The ejectile nucleus will be 4He, which is very well bound, so the reaction will be exothermic.
    So the reaction would be 198Hg(t,a)197Au.

    But then, tritium isn't exactly easy to get. According to wiki, tritium is $30000 a gram, and 400 grams is made a year.

    Oh dear. Gold is $40.71/gram at the moment. So we're done here.

    It's probable that there's another reaction that would work, let's say 198Hg(12C,13C)197Au. Negative Q-value but not too negative. That'll do. Let's assume the carbon is close enough to free.

    Ok, then you've got to make a target of mercury. Since mercury is liquid, this isn't easy, let's use HgS (paper here http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0029554X77906309). So, let's make a super super thick target of HgS (say, 1 square cm, mass 100 mg of Hg, ~10^20 atoms/cm^2) and blast a high intensity beam of 12C on it. Say, 100 particle microamps (10^15 particles/second), 200 MeV 12C. I don't know what the reaction cross section of this reaction is, but let's be optimistic and say that it's 100 mb. That gives us about 10^10 particles of gold produced a second. Ah, but then we have natural hg, so that's a billion atoms of gold produced a second. Which sounds like a lot, but that's only 10^-16 grams of gold produced per second! You'd have to run your accelerator for 3000 years just to convert all the 198Hg in your 100mg natural mercury target into gold, under these conditions!
    And then you'd still have to chemically purify it to remove all the other junk you made!

    This is of course, an estimate, and I might be out by a factor of 100 either way. But you can see even then, it's just not worth it.
  15. Oct 27, 2016 #14
    And yet all plutonium in a large number of nuclear bombs is produced by transmutation of elements. None is extracted from nature.
    How come that only 35...50 mg of Cm is produced each year? The chain is
    U-238->Pu-239->Pu-240->Pu-241->Pu-242->Am-243->Cm-244... just 6 neutrons. Shouldn't reactors be producing large amounts of curium?
  16. Oct 27, 2016 #15


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    I should have been more specific, the number was for 248Cm. My apologies. Kilograms of lighter isotopes have been produced. (ETA, in total, not per year) And they are quite a lot cheaper (still much more than gold!)

    6 successive neutron captures on a single nucleus is rather a lot, so the quantities produced per kg of fuel will be small. For heavier isotopes it's more complicated, and yields will be smaller still.

    With all these isotopes, a good deal of the price can be attributed to demand and economies of scale. It's always useful for nuclear physicists when an isotope starts to be used in medicine! ;)
  17. Oct 27, 2016 #16
    What defines their price?
    The costs of producing uranium and refining it are paid for by the heat converted into electricity.
    4 successive neutron captures go to plutonium 242, and that is produced as a large fraction of total plutonium.
    Plutonium 242 cannot be chemically separated from plutonium 239. Americium 243 and curium 244 could.
    Since none of the isotopes between 241 and curium 246 is fissile... are americium and curium (lots of it curium 244) routinely separated from fuel when recycled?
    How is it useful? It gives the isotopes value and therefore price. Worthless byproducts necessarily separated from energy production, though...
  18. Oct 27, 2016 #17


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    Price is the usual factors: demand, supply. Demand can be due to research uses, medical isotopes etc.

    I'm not an expert on the fuel cycle, so someone may chime in with a better answer. However, there's a difference between separation of just what you're interested in getting (say, Pu) from "everything else" and then further separating "everything else". Unless you are specifically interested in an isotope, you wouldn't bother separating it out. Isotopic separation is no easy task, in general.

    It's useful for nuclear physicists when medical uses are found because the amount of the isotope that is produced becomes substantially larger. Economies of scale means that the isotopes become cheaper. Many isotopes used in nuclear physics are only of interest for nuclear physics, (48Ca is a good example. Hugely important for nuclear physics, not interesting for anyone else), demand is small, so they are only produced/separated in tiny amounts at one or two places, and are therefore expensive. A colleague of mine once held the entire worlds supply of 48Ca in his hand.

    Anyway, this is getting into economics, away from physics. :wink:
  19. Oct 27, 2016 #18
    Again thank you for the extensive knowledge by everyone, it's simply impressing how much information you guys provided. What's the technology we are using now that is taking that long (3000 years)? What do you think about nanotechnology for a faster process or quantum mechanics?

    I can see why the cost is high because the current technology we are using today along with extracting resources from earth in which we have a budget to maintain.
  20. Oct 27, 2016 #19
    Also we will have to find a planet to extract from since mercury is the closest to gold when it comes to isotopes as you presented earlier, however this is by far a different age in time before we start space exploration and probing, so to conclude it all it just isn't possible in our time?
  21. Oct 27, 2016 #20
    Even though this is getting away from physics it still ties in. So there isn't much of a problem on tying in the economics because it creates a full understanding.
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