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06/13/2007

Laser Alchemy?

Searching the Internet can be a weird and frustrating experience.
Last week I was trying to find out how much I would have to pay
if I wanted to buy some mercury, that silvery liquid element that
in one form or another has become a major health issue. For
example, due to mercury contamination, pregnant women
concerned about their unborn children can no longer eat fish
without considering the type of fish, its source and the portion
size. But I digress. I consider myself pretty good at tracking
things down on the Web. However, my quest to find the
approximate price of mercury was truly frustrating. Every site I
was led to by my search engine gave me either the cost of gold,
the cost of various Mercury automobiles or the cost of
downloading songs on the Mercury label!

Suddenly, I found myself on a site that gave me an answer. Last
year, I could have bought a 76-pound flask of mercury for
somewhat more than $700, roughly $9 -10/lb. Where did I find
this answer? I should have known – the official online Web site
of Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama! I must
confess that I don’t recall ever having visited the Web site of any
political figure, let alone one of such prominence. And why did
the words “mercury”, “cost” or “price” and perhaps another word
or two I’ve forgotten, lead me to Barack?

Obama’s site posts a Chicago Tribune article dated November
27, 2006 that discusses a potential sale by the Department of
Energy of some 1,300 tons of mercury. I hadn’t known that
mercury was used in processing materials used to make hydrogen
bombs and that alternate approaches had been found that don’t
rely on mercury. The Tribune article states that the Defense
Department also had about 4,400 tons of mercury on hand and
had decided two years earlier not to sell it in order to avoid
“human health and ecological risks.” The reason for the article
being on Obama’s Web site is that it mentions a bill he had
introduced in the Senate to ban American exports of mercury to
other countries. His thinking was that the mercury could come
back to haunt us in the form of some sort of pollution – sounds
like a good argument to me.

Why was I interested in the price of mercury in the first place? I
wasn’t really looking to buy any of the stuff. What spurred my
search was an e-mail bulletin sent to members of the Materials
Research Society (MRS). The bulletin contained a very brief 10-
line report on a paper presented by University of Paris professor
Francois Bozon-Verduraz and his group on May 31 at the MRS
Spring Meeting in Strasbourg, France. In earlier times, what the
professor reported would have created a sensation. The French
workers claim to have changed mercury into gold; to transmute
an element into gold was the alchemist’s dream hundreds of
years ago. Today, transforming one element into another is not
uncommon using nuclear reactors, cyclotrons or other particle
accelerators. Hey, maybe this is the answer to our problem –
convert all that mercury to gold!

What surprised me is that the French workers claim to have
converted mercury into gold using a laser. They used a laser to
irradiate a suspension of nanoparticles of mercury in heavy
water, D2O (D is deuterium, a heavier isotope of hydrogen).
(When I read the report, I couldn’t help thinking back to that ill-
fated “cold fusion” and its association with heavy water.) The
French group found that after about four hours of irradiating the
colloidal suspension of mercury nanoparticles in D2O there was
a significant quantity of gold formed. They propose that the
laser light causes the mercury nanoparticles to emit X-rays. The
X-rays are postulated to hit the deuterium and knock out a slow
neutron from its nucleus. The neutron then gets picked up by the
mercury, turning it into gold, according to the report.

Once again, I’m frustrated. If the nucleus of a mercury atom
picks up a neutron, that just makes it a heavier form (isotope) of
mercury. The short report on the French work didn’t say
anything about the loss of a proton that is required to change
mercury into gold. If a nucleus has 80 protons, it’s mercury –
with 79 protons, it’s gold! Silly me – I hadn’t consulted
Wikipedia. I also hadn’t noted that the MRS report mentioned
that the mercury was enriched with an isotope of mercury,
196Hg (Hg is the chemical symbol for mercury). It’s apparently
well known among the nuclear reactor crowd that if 196Hg picks
up a slow neutron you form 197Hg, which is essentially what I
just said. What I didn’t know is that 197Hg is unstable and
decays into 197Au (that’s gold) through “electron capture”, an
unfamiliar process to me. It seems that a negatively charged
electron in orbit around the mercury nucleus gets sucked into the
nucleus, converting a positively charged proton into a neutron,
which has no charge. Loss of the proton leaves us with the 79
protons, i.e., gold.

Aside from my surprise that a laser could somehow transmute
one element into another, the report also quoted Bozon-Verduraz
as saying that he realizes that the process is not economically
feasible because mercury is “so much more expensive than
gold.” This surprised me as much as the science. I never
considered mercury to be an expensive commodity. Hence my
search on the Web for the price of mercury and the unexpected
visit to Obama’s Web site.

The current price of gold is somewhere in the range of $600-700
an ounce, vastly more than mercury at around $10 a pound. So
what’s up? Apparently, it’s that 196Hg. I checked my physics
and chemistry handbooks and found that ordinary mercury
contains a mere 0.15 percent of 196Hg. It must be the cost of
that relatively rare isotope that makes the French group’s
enriched mercury more expensive than gold.

With much less than one percent of those thousands of tons of
mercury here in the U.S. being 196Hg, it looks like we’re stuck
with it. One suggestion in the Tribune article on Obama’s Web
site is that all that mercury could be stored in a climate controlled
building the size of a Wal-Mart. I couldn’t help thinking that the
“Wal-Mart” should be put in a huge bowl in case the container
sprang a leak! Finally, even though our Editor, Brian Trumbore,
promotes a conservative Republican philosophy, I must thank
Senator Obama for relieving my search engine frustration.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-06/13/2007-      
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Dr. Bortrum

06/13/2007

Laser Alchemy?

Searching the Internet can be a weird and frustrating experience.
Last week I was trying to find out how much I would have to pay
if I wanted to buy some mercury, that silvery liquid element that
in one form or another has become a major health issue. For
example, due to mercury contamination, pregnant women
concerned about their unborn children can no longer eat fish
without considering the type of fish, its source and the portion
size. But I digress. I consider myself pretty good at tracking
things down on the Web. However, my quest to find the
approximate price of mercury was truly frustrating. Every site I
was led to by my search engine gave me either the cost of gold,
the cost of various Mercury automobiles or the cost of
downloading songs on the Mercury label!

Suddenly, I found myself on a site that gave me an answer. Last
year, I could have bought a 76-pound flask of mercury for
somewhat more than $700, roughly $9 -10/lb. Where did I find
this answer? I should have known – the official online Web site
of Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama! I must
confess that I don’t recall ever having visited the Web site of any
political figure, let alone one of such prominence. And why did
the words “mercury”, “cost” or “price” and perhaps another word
or two I’ve forgotten, lead me to Barack?

Obama’s site posts a Chicago Tribune article dated November
27, 2006 that discusses a potential sale by the Department of
Energy of some 1,300 tons of mercury. I hadn’t known that
mercury was used in processing materials used to make hydrogen
bombs and that alternate approaches had been found that don’t
rely on mercury. The Tribune article states that the Defense
Department also had about 4,400 tons of mercury on hand and
had decided two years earlier not to sell it in order to avoid
“human health and ecological risks.” The reason for the article
being on Obama’s Web site is that it mentions a bill he had
introduced in the Senate to ban American exports of mercury to
other countries. His thinking was that the mercury could come
back to haunt us in the form of some sort of pollution – sounds
like a good argument to me.

Why was I interested in the price of mercury in the first place? I
wasn’t really looking to buy any of the stuff. What spurred my
search was an e-mail bulletin sent to members of the Materials
Research Society (MRS). The bulletin contained a very brief 10-
line report on a paper presented by University of Paris professor
Francois Bozon-Verduraz and his group on May 31 at the MRS
Spring Meeting in Strasbourg, France. In earlier times, what the
professor reported would have created a sensation. The French
workers claim to have changed mercury into gold; to transmute
an element into gold was the alchemist’s dream hundreds of
years ago. Today, transforming one element into another is not
uncommon using nuclear reactors, cyclotrons or other particle
accelerators. Hey, maybe this is the answer to our problem –
convert all that mercury to gold!

What surprised me is that the French workers claim to have
converted mercury into gold using a laser. They used a laser to
irradiate a suspension of nanoparticles of mercury in heavy
water, D2O (D is deuterium, a heavier isotope of hydrogen).
(When I read the report, I couldn’t help thinking back to that ill-
fated “cold fusion” and its association with heavy water.) The
French group found that after about four hours of irradiating the
colloidal suspension of mercury nanoparticles in D2O there was
a significant quantity of gold formed. They propose that the
laser light causes the mercury nanoparticles to emit X-rays. The
X-rays are postulated to hit the deuterium and knock out a slow
neutron from its nucleus. The neutron then gets picked up by the
mercury, turning it into gold, according to the report.

Once again, I’m frustrated. If the nucleus of a mercury atom
picks up a neutron, that just makes it a heavier form (isotope) of
mercury. The short report on the French work didn’t say
anything about the loss of a proton that is required to change
mercury into gold. If a nucleus has 80 protons, it’s mercury –
with 79 protons, it’s gold! Silly me – I hadn’t consulted
Wikipedia. I also hadn’t noted that the MRS report mentioned
that the mercury was enriched with an isotope of mercury,
196Hg (Hg is the chemical symbol for mercury). It’s apparently
well known among the nuclear reactor crowd that if 196Hg picks
up a slow neutron you form 197Hg, which is essentially what I
just said. What I didn’t know is that 197Hg is unstable and
decays into 197Au (that’s gold) through “electron capture”, an
unfamiliar process to me. It seems that a negatively charged
electron in orbit around the mercury nucleus gets sucked into the
nucleus, converting a positively charged proton into a neutron,
which has no charge. Loss of the proton leaves us with the 79
protons, i.e., gold.

Aside from my surprise that a laser could somehow transmute
one element into another, the report also quoted Bozon-Verduraz
as saying that he realizes that the process is not economically
feasible because mercury is “so much more expensive than
gold.” This surprised me as much as the science. I never
considered mercury to be an expensive commodity. Hence my
search on the Web for the price of mercury and the unexpected
visit to Obama’s Web site.

The current price of gold is somewhere in the range of $600-700
an ounce, vastly more than mercury at around $10 a pound. So
what’s up? Apparently, it’s that 196Hg. I checked my physics
and chemistry handbooks and found that ordinary mercury
contains a mere 0.15 percent of 196Hg. It must be the cost of
that relatively rare isotope that makes the French group’s
enriched mercury more expensive than gold.

With much less than one percent of those thousands of tons of
mercury here in the U.S. being 196Hg, it looks like we’re stuck
with it. One suggestion in the Tribune article on Obama’s Web
site is that all that mercury could be stored in a climate controlled
building the size of a Wal-Mart. I couldn’t help thinking that the
“Wal-Mart” should be put in a huge bowl in case the container
sprang a leak! Finally, even though our Editor, Brian Trumbore,
promotes a conservative Republican philosophy, I must thank
Senator Obama for relieving my search engine frustration.

Allen F. Bortrum