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What is transmutation?

Transmutation is the action and the result of turning something into something else; in chemistry , it is the result of the transformation of one chemical element into another . This can occur naturally or synthetically. The most common example is nuclear fusion.

Definition and main characteristics

The term transmutation refers to the action and effect of the verb “to transmute.” This verb comes from the Latin transmutare , which in turn is made up of the prefix trans , which indicates a transfer movement, and the verb mutare , which can be translated as “mutate” or “change”.

In a general sense, transmutation is defined as any transformation of one object or element into another. However, this definition differs in some details according to other disciplines. For example, in alchemy, transmutation was the conversion of basic elements into precious metals, primarily gold. In fact, the alchemists unsuccessfully sought to develop a philosopher’s stone that was capable of transmuting common objects into gold.

In chemistry, however, transmutation is the conversion of one chemical element into another. This transformation can happen naturally or through an artificial method. Radioactive decay, nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion are examples of transmutation.

Currently, scientists can transmute elements by bombarding the nucleus of an atom with particles, forcing it to change its atomic number, thus becoming another element.

Origin of transmutation

Transmutation is a concept closely linked to the origin of alchemy. This is a practice that combines knowledge from different fields, such as chemistry, physics, metallurgy, medicine, art, mysticism, astrology, and semiotics.

Although alchemy focused on different projects, the most prominent throughout history were its objective of transforming lead and other elements into gold and the search for the philosopher’s stone, to obtain eternal life or achieve said transmutation.

In the Middle Ages, transmutation had its peak, although without success in obtaining precious metals, and was later prohibited. In the 18th century, alchemy was largely superseded by chemistry, after Antoine Lavoisier and John Dalton proposed the atomic theory.

Until then, the goal of alchemy was to convert lead from a base metal into gold. While he did not achieve this goal, physicists and chemists later learned how to transmute elements.

The first actual transmutation was recorded in 1901. At that time, chemist Frederick Soddy and physicist Ernest Rutherford observed that thorium was transformed into radium through radioactive decay.

Nearly a century later, in 1980, the American chemist Glenn Seaborg converted bismuth into gold. There are even reports that he was able to transmute a small amount of lead into gold as well, possibly during his attempts to turn bismuth into gold.

How transmutation occurs

Transmutation can occur naturally in items containing unstable nuclei. This can occur by nuclear fission, where the heavier nucleus splits into two lighter ones. The opposite process, nuclear fusion, occurs at extremely high temperatures, and can also cause transmutation.

Synthetic or artificial transmutation can be performed in different ways. One of them is using a nuclear reactor and irradiating mercury or platinum, to produce radioactive isotopes. If mercury-196 is used as the starting isotope, slow neutron capture followed by electron capture can produce the only stable isotope, gold-197.

However, since the discovery of the atom, it is known that chemical reactions basically affect the electrons in the shell of the atom. But transmutation implies the modification of atomic nuclei. For this reason, to transform one element into another, the number of protons in the nucleus must be modified.

For example, lead has 82 protons and gold 79. Therefore, to become gold, lead must lose three protons. This is not only possible in practice, but has also been carried out in practice. But to achieve this transmutation, enormous amounts of energy are needed, and the result is more expensive gold than is available on the market. Therefore, this type of transmutation is not currently a viable alternative.


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