Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

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Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby britus » Wed Mar 16, 2011 1:37 pm UTC

Assume that alchemists had succeeded with at least one of their goals - transmuation of metals - and had succeeded to the degree that they could transmute any element. For the sake of constraints, assume that the cost and danger involved in producing an element are about equal to the cost and danger in mining/purifying that element, so all this would really do is open up the availability (one could produce as much gold as they liked, but not for free).

What would be the implications if this happened in the 15th century? Precious metals stop being useful as currency? Uranium is used as a power source to boil water in Elizabethan England? Higher strength alloys create a steampunk fantasy?

What do you think?
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby jobriath » Thu Mar 17, 2011 12:00 pm UTC

In Victorian times you could have uranium-powered steam engines. I'm not saying you should change the time period of your novel necessarily, ...
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby britus » Thu Mar 17, 2011 12:15 pm UTC

Yup, this was exactly the genesis of the thought. Well, a little further back. I was wondering if SE England would be more polluted from all of the increased train traffic, but decided that rather than polluted, it might be more likely subject to the gentle hand of radiation. :)
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby drkslvr » Thu Mar 17, 2011 3:57 pm UTC

Remember what happened to Marie Curie? I'm pretty sure that it would only take one generation for people to figure out that some elements were dangerous. :mrgreen:
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby britus » Thu Mar 17, 2011 6:05 pm UTC

drkslvr wrote:Remember what happened to Marie Curie? I'm pretty sure that it would only take one generation for people to figure out that some elements were dangerous. :mrgreen:


Good point! But then again, the Romans knew lead caused deformities for quite a while, and I'm pretty sure the Welsh miners had caught onto black lung. It's just a matter of how willing they are to deal with the long term effects.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby drkslvr » Thu Mar 17, 2011 6:14 pm UTC

britus wrote:But then again, the Romans knew lead caused deformities for quite a while, and I'm pretty sure the Welsh miners had caught onto black lung. It's just a matter of how willing they are to deal with the long term effects.

I hadn't thought about it that way. I suppose it's true for us in the real world, too.

One other neat thing that alchemy could have given us: access to rare-earth metals that are great for super magnets. Could this have affected history?
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby britus » Thu Mar 17, 2011 6:41 pm UTC

drkslvr wrote:One other neat thing that alchemy could have given us: access to rare-earth metals that are great for super magnets. Could this have affected history?


If we can figure out some way to employ those rare-earth magnets, I don't see why not! How could we see them showing up earlier in the middle ages? An earlier liquid-filled compass? Airship anchors? Use with diamagnetic materials to create levitating trains? (The British Empire would have been even more punctual, but good luck stopping at the train stations!)
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Dark Avorian » Fri Mar 18, 2011 1:34 pm UTC

It might also make gold or silver a viable widespread component in electrical wiring.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Izawwlgood » Fri Mar 18, 2011 1:47 pm UTC

Anyone read Stephen Baxter's Anti-Ice?
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby britus » Fri Mar 18, 2011 8:17 pm UTC

Dark Avorian wrote:It might also make gold or silver a viable widespread component in electrical wiring.

That's a good point. I wonder how much more effective the telegraph would have been with spun-gold wires.

Izawwlgood wrote:Anyone read Stephen Baxter's Anti-Ice?

Nope, but the summary on wikipedia looks interesting. Does it have more that is relevant to the alchemy idea, or mostly just the introduction of technology into the past?
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Izawwlgood » Fri Mar 18, 2011 10:57 pm UTC

Less so on the alchemy idea, sort of. The idea is that some material rains from the skies, and is found that when heated to room temperature, acts as anti-matter. Because of how it falls, the geopolitical sphere is wholly shifted, and Germany is a stronger super power, whereas America is sort of just meh.
So, sort of alchemy in that there's a super material that's awesome pants, but not really alchemy because it's more about how said material shifts the balance of power.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Idhan » Thu Mar 24, 2011 6:52 pm UTC

britus wrote: For the sake of constraints, assume that the cost and danger involved in producing an element are about equal to the cost and danger in mining/purifying that element, so all this would really do is open up the availability (one could produce as much gold as they liked, but not for free).

What would be the implications if this happened in the 15th century? Precious metals stop being useful as currency? Uranium is used as a power source to boil water in Elizabethan England? Higher strength alloys create a steampunk fantasy?


If costs of transmutation and costs of mining and refining are the same, the implications are actually pretty limited as far as I can tell.

If you want a fuel cell that uses platinum catalysts, for instance, either you use really expensive mined platinum, or you use really expensive transmuted platinum. That doesn't really make platinum more available.

That said, there is one implication I can think of: some kinds of strategic resources are delocalized. Like, if the Japanese and the Russians both want tungsten, then securing tungsten reserves in Korea (or whatever) isn't essential. Essentially, two tracks for element location are available: the alchemical track and the mining track. The alchemical track probably depends on factors like infrastructure, education, etc, like a modern industrial economy: the alchemy industry requires stable supply lines, educated workers, etc. The mining track is based more on natural resource endowments.

Exotic elements don't really become more abundant in everyday life, but their local nature is reduced. This may have implications for how some forms of imperialism develop (although, as far as I know, many of the strategic resources sought by empires were not based on elements, but on factors like climate, etc. Alchemy is no substitute for growing sugar in the West Indies.)

UPDATE: It just occurred to me that you specified that the cost acquiring the element through mining and through transmutation are about the same, not that the price of the element is unaffected. In light of that, I suppose I'd have to see -- if mines are significantly more profitable than industrial enterprises, because of the limited seams available, then the mines' profits would be reduced, the price of the element would go down, and we would in fact see greater abundance of the element in everyday life.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby ikrase » Fri Mar 25, 2011 7:15 am UTC

Potentially useful for : He (rare, easy to waste)
Rare Earths (localized)


If it produces them in metallic form, you could get a lot of stuff refined that normally could not be refined (i.e. Al, Ti)
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Romesca » Thu Oct 13, 2011 3:42 pm UTC

Just asking but would the discovery of a neutron emitter be sufficient? Since any Alpha emitter alloyed with beryllium or aluminium would result in fast neutron radiation, mercury for example would be transmuted into gold or at least an isotope of gold, if the discovery of a neutron moderator ,example heavy water was also discovered then that tungsten you mention would be able to become platinum given a bit of time. or for a more varied example fast neutrons reduce number of protons and neutrons in an atom, slow increase the number, H could become basically any material of a higher elemental number through extended bombardment, or with fast bombardment any element could become a lower element. note the fast bombardment carries the risk of fission reaction causing both a retardation in the process and a nasty risk. is does however require metals from the upper portion of the table of elements.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Charlie! » Fri Oct 14, 2011 1:23 am UTC

Yeah, my first thought was rare earths too. Rare earth magnets means easy generators and motors, as well as mag-lev trains.

Also, successful alchemy may ironically be most "successful" by getting replaced by chemistry faster. Transmutation of elements would make it clearer what elements are. The earlier discovery would have interesting consequences for a fictional setting, because it would mean that the names of the elements would be different - you couldn't just say "uranium," you'd have to either refer to it by its properties or make up some alchemist-ey name.

EDIT: Oh, and of course if transmuting to certain elements is allowed there are not one but two problems. Transmuting a block of plutonium or of element 113 will kill you and everyone around you in a dramatic fashion. But this leads to the second problem, which is contamination with radioactive byproducts! With insufficient knowledge it's probably possible to poison significant areas of land before realizing what's going on. Especially if the elements get used as weapons of war before the long-term risk is discovered.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Romesca » Fri Oct 14, 2011 10:39 am UTC

Actually it's conceivable that uranium would be named after the planet Uranus again, but it's also possible that it would be discovered as a result of discovering radiation, after all if they started noticing that the energy seemed to come from the space material wouldn't they want to test a number of other materials?
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Soralin » Fri Oct 14, 2011 11:45 pm UTC

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_nu ... on_reactor

If you had people living on a planet which was geologically younger, or at least where the system had been formed from or seeded by more recent supernovae, you can have a higher concentration of U-235 to U-238 in natural uranium. This was the case on Earth, since U-235 decays faster than U-238, the concentration of U-235 a couple billion years ago was about 3.1% of Uranium, instead of the about 0.7% it is today. Which was enough for some natural fission reactors to form in mineral deposits a couple billion years ago on Earth.

If you had people living on a world that had such concentrations, you could make yourself a fission reactor without any sort of enrichment required at all, just from natural metal or ore alone. Which means it could conceivably have been discovered much earlier, and would be much easier to make.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby idobox » Mon Oct 17, 2011 12:11 pm UTC

This alchemy thing could allow a totally different development of metallurgy.
Metals like aluminium and titanium have been discovered and refined only recently, although their oxides are quite common, because people didn't know their chemistry.
For example, the production of aluminium is very difficult, and aluminium was once more expansive than gold. An alchemic process able to transform magnesium into aluminium could be cheaper/easier, and allow the development of aluminium armors that could significantly change wars, much earlier development of planes, combined with cheaper zeppelins (using helium). Same thing with titanium or transformation of silicon into huge diamonds.

Find any expensive/difficult chemistry, and there's a chance alchemy could have a strong impact.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Idhan » Wed Oct 19, 2011 1:00 am UTC

I think that a lot of this discussion is ignoring a stipulation in britus's OP:

"Assume that the cost and danger involved in producing an element are about equal to the cost and danger in mining/purifying that element."

Now, reading britus's later posts in this thread, it seems that s/he is also ignoring this, e.g., in the response to Dark Avorian saying "That's a good point. I wonder how much more effective the telegraph would have been with spun-gold wires."

Now, if we're dropping the cost equivalence law, then let's drop it. We could drop it in favor of some alternative cost law (such as "the closer an element is to iron-56, the harder it is to transmute it to something else, and the easier it is to transmute something else into it."), or we could just leave costs indeterminate, and think about conditionals (e.g., "if gold becomes much cheaper, then gold wiring might improve communications."), but I think we shouldn't specify one set of rules (mining/refining and alchemy are equivalent in cost/hazard) and then assume another in terms of implications (gold wires everywhere).

Sorry to get all anal about this. It's just been bugging me.

Personally, I think the conditionals approach would work. I.e., "if alchemy makes rare earths cheaper or available sooner, then here are some magnetic applications..." We could leave out the "if alchemy makes x cheaper or available sooner, then" and just skip to applications, leaving it implicit. That would leave most of this discussion unchanged.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Gauscrypts » Mon Dec 19, 2011 6:44 pm UTC

idobox wrote:This alchemy thing could allow a totally different development of metallurgy.
Metals like aluminium and titanium have been discovered and refined only recently, although their oxides are quite common, because people didn't know their chemistry.
For example, the production of aluminium is very difficult, and aluminium was once more expansive than gold. An alchemic process able to transform magnesium into aluminium could be cheaper/easier, and allow the development of aluminium armors that could significantly change wars, much earlier development of planes, combined with cheaper zeppelins (using helium). Same thing with titanium or transformation of silicon into huge diamonds.

Find any expensive/difficult chemistry, and there's a chance alchemy could have a strong impact.


Just a reminder, diamonds are made from carbon, not silicon. Even so, the possibilities that emerge from earlier advances in metallurgy due to alchemy are intriguing.
I must express some doubts about aeroplanes being developed sooner. As I recall, the primary building component of the Wright Brother's flyers was spruce wood.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby idobox » Mon Dec 19, 2011 8:14 pm UTC

Gauscrypts wrote:
idobox wrote:This alchemy thing could allow a totally different development of metallurgy.
Metals like aluminium and titanium have been discovered and refined only recently, although their oxides are quite common, because people didn't know their chemistry.
For example, the production of aluminium is very difficult, and aluminium was once more expansive than gold. An alchemic process able to transform magnesium into aluminium could be cheaper/easier, and allow the development of aluminium armors that could significantly change wars, much earlier development of planes, combined with cheaper zeppelins (using helium). Same thing with titanium or transformation of silicon into huge diamonds.

Find any expensive/difficult chemistry, and there's a chance alchemy could have a strong impact.


Just a reminder, diamonds are made from carbon, not silicon. Even so, the possibilities that emerge from earlier advances in metallurgy due to alchemy are intriguing.
I must express some doubts about aeroplanes being developed sooner. As I recall, the primary building component of the Wright Brother's flyers was spruce wood.


That's the point. Silicon in diamond-like configuration (silicon wafers for microelectronics) is cheaper than diamond, if you could turn the silicon atoms into carbon atoms without changing the crystal structure, you'd end up with diamond.
Many parts of Wright's plane were made of metal, especially the engine. Reducing the weight of those parts makes it easier to fly a plane.
By the way, in France, we often consider Ader to be the inventor of the airplane, with his machine flying at 20cm altitude for 50m, 13 years before the Wright brothers, even if it had no controls and had a number of serious fundamental flaws.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Copper Bezel » Tue Dec 20, 2011 12:49 am UTC

Yeah, but I think the objection was on the basis that whether or not chemical arrangements remain when nuclear ones are changed depends on the particular magic mechanism of alchemy involved, though. Converting silicon into carbon might still result in graphite. Just sayin'.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby jennyb » Sun Jan 08, 2012 5:46 am UTC

there is a guy who has a video on turning glass into gold using a micrawave oven. Or maybe he used soda cans. He showed the results and the gold that was produced. I can't remember who this was..does anyone know of him?
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby idobox » Tue Jan 10, 2012 3:23 pm UTC

I just love how so many people, especially Hollywood producers, think microwaves, electricity and magnetism are some kind of arcane magic that can have almost any effect.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby AvatarIII » Tue Jan 10, 2012 3:41 pm UTC

idobox wrote:I just love how so many people, especially Hollywood producers, think microwaves, electricity and magnetism are some kind of arcane magic that can have almost any effect.


lol, that just reminds me of the emDrive :D
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Izawwlgood » Tue Jan 10, 2012 5:29 pm UTC

idobox wrote:I just love how so many people, especially Hollywood producers, think microwaves, electricity and magnetism are some kind of arcane magic that can have almost any effect.

If Futurama has taught me anything, it's that microwaves and time travel are one and the same.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby starslayer » Thu Jan 12, 2012 4:00 am UTC

I don't know that metallurgy would be significantly affected, honestly. Even if you know about an element, getting a very pure sample is difficult at best using 15th century techniques. Modern steels and bronzes, for example, are far stronger and more fatigue-resistant, etc., than Renaissance examples of the same because of the much greater control over the alloying and purification processes that we have today. Those rare-earth magnets require strong magnets to make in the first place, since a random alloy of neodymium, iron, and boron isn't going to have a significant magnetic field all on its lonesome. If you don't know about electromagnets, how the hell are you going to realize how strong they can get?

idobox wrote:allow the development of aluminium armors
Aluminum is not a very good armor material. It is not nearly as strong for a given thickness as steel is, even if it is much lighter. There is a reason that even today, when aluminum is cheap enough to be used in soda cans, we don't use it for armor. As has been covered, its use in planes came at least two decades after the airplane was invented.

Titanium is expensive because while it is relatively common (if your house or something else you own is painted white, chances are it's covered in titanium dioxide), getting it hot enough to work means it will react with the oxygen in the air quite rapidly and oxidize away. This means you need either an inert gas atmosphere or a vacuum furnace to do anything useful with the metal itself. Presumably, the transmutation process isn't going to let you circumvent this. And FYI, many elements and their chemistry were known long before they could be isolated as a pure sample; titanium was discovered in 1791, but could not be isolated until the early 20th century, and couldn't be made in commercially useful quantities until the 1930's. Simply knowing about it earlier probably would not have helped this.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby idobox » Thu Jan 12, 2012 2:26 pm UTC

starslayer wrote:Aluminum is not a very good armor material. It is not nearly as strong for a given thickness as steel is, even if it is much lighter. There is a reason that even today, when aluminum is cheap enough to be used in soda cans, we don't use it for armor. As has been covered, its use in planes came at least two decades after the airplane was invented.

That's why you should use a thicker armor, that would still be lighter than steel. The idea would be to protect yourself against muskets and swords, not modern firearms.
Apparently some navies used aluminium for building ships, but abandoned its use after the Falklands war, switching to steel. So definitely not the best metal to use when explosive projectiles are used.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Izawwlgood » Thu Jan 12, 2012 5:27 pm UTC

Did they stop using aluminum when opponents just flung gobs of mercury?
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Gauscrypts » Thu Jan 12, 2012 7:43 pm UTC

If any real conclusions are to be made on the subject of alchemy, it is necessary for us to define what (hypothetically) alchemy and transmutation are, how they works, and what they are capable of. With the understanding that many of these premises will need revision, some may need to be removed, and some may need to be added, here is what I think alchemy would be.

1. Alchemy is the applied science of analyzing, deconstructing, and rearranging matter on the atomic/molecular scale.
2. Transmutation is the process through which particles of one substance become particles of another substance.
3. The Law of Conservation of Matter applies to alchemy.
4. The Law of Conservation of Energy applies to alchemy.

Please quote this when making revisions/additions/subtractions to the list.

If anyone could propose a possible energy source/catalyst for transmutation, it would be of great help.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Copper Bezel » Sun Jan 15, 2012 5:04 am UTC

britus doesn't seem to be following the thread anymore, but presumably has all of those things for the story ze's working on.

Conservation of matter-energy would be tricky, since to keep that, you'd really need to do it the old-fashioned way with a particle accelerator. I mean, even if you're taking a mole of helium and a mole of carbon atoms and making a mole of oxygen atoms, the mass is slightly different, and of course the energy stored in the nuclei has changed.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Gauscrypts » Mon Jan 16, 2012 11:32 pm UTC

By conservation of matter/energy I meant that alchemy cannot create new matter/energy, nor can it eliminate matter/energy from existence. You don't necessarily have to produce something of the exact mass and energy levels as your starting reagents, it's possible to have 'left-overs' from the transmutation process.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby idobox » Wed Jan 18, 2012 5:03 pm UTC

Like a big hole in the ground?
Because transmuting elements usually imply absurd energies.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Gauscrypts » Wed Feb 01, 2012 11:43 pm UTC

idobox wrote:Like a big hole in the ground?
Because transmuting elements usually imply absurd energies.


After giving the matter some thought, I don't think that alchemy, by its very nature, can have near-equivalent costs and dangers to conventional means of obtaining materials. For alchemy to be relevant, it has to be more cost-efficient than other methods. I do think that the dangers of transmutation would be vastly greater, and I'll explain why.

Transmutation is taking one element and changing into another element. For example, an alchemist could transmute lead (Pb) into gold (Au). Now, let's get mathematical. Let's say I'm an alchemist, and I want to transmute Pb-204 into Au-197. A single atom of Au is made of fewer subatomic particles (protons, neutrons, electrons) than a single atom of Pb. I can, numerically, end up with an atom of Au. This will require a nuclear fission reaction, which is usually very energetic. I may achieve transmutation of lead into gold, but the kinetic energy blast and gamma radiation could kill me. So yes, there will be a big hole in the ground after most transmutations. Hopefully, alchemists would learn to perform their transmutations in blast-proof underground laboratories with radiation shielding.

However, since this is hypothetical science, I will say that I have a catalyst that sparks the transmutation while simultaneously absorbing kinetic energy and gamma radiation: I'll call it the Philosopher's Stone. The absorption of energy and radiation could further the Stone's power to transmute, exponentially increasing the potential scale of transmutations every time it is used by an alchemist. This makes the possession of the Philosopher's Stone very desirable, and the creation of it every alchemist's goal. That said, does anyone know of any theoretical means of creating such a catalyst?

Pb Philosopher's Stone
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Soralin » Thu Feb 02, 2012 12:00 pm UTC

Well there is the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CNO_cycle Which is sort of a nuclear catalyst for transmuting hydrogen into helium:
Image
It's the primary energy source for more massive stars. Although for our own star, or smaller ones, it's only a small part of energy output. Most of the energy from smaller stars coming from the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proton%E2% ... oton_chain

Simpler than lead->gold would be mercury->gold(and mercury fits in nicely with the alchemy theme), and which has been done before: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthesis_ ... ous_metals Although, you do have to pick the right isotope of mercury and the right process If you don't want to end up with radioactive gold. (Although you may not mind radioactive gold, depending on what you plan to do with it :))

Really, the kinetic energy and radiation produced by such a process wouldn't be too hard to handle, as long as the reaction proceeded at a reasonable steady pace. You could put your transmutation setup into a metal ball, and drop it in a pit in the ground (or toss it in a river or a lake or something if you need more cooling), and wait for the reaction to finish before fishing it out again. As long as it doesn't get hot enough to melt the metal ball it's in, or damage anything necessary to the process, then it would work out just fine.

As for getting a catalyst that can do something like this at low energy levels, or that can directly make use of nuclear energies in catalyzing additional reactions, that would be quite a bit more difficult.
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby Gauscrypts » Sun Feb 05, 2012 5:59 am UTC

I feel like this thread is quickly sliding down the slippery slope of real science. Considering that this means alchemy might be achieved in real life as a result of such deliberations and discussions as this one, I must express a youthful giddiness.

Radioactive gold isotopes would make wonderful payments to unsavory debtors, don't you agree?
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Re: Alchemy (transmutation of elements)

Postby idobox » Wed Mar 21, 2012 5:03 pm UTC

It would certainly give a new meaning to fool's gold. Killing you because of radioactivity, and turning into platinium and iridium (also expensive, but definitively not gold)
If there is no answer, there is no question. If there is no solution, there is no problem.

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