transmutation of elements

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Transmutation is the act of changing a substance, tangible or intangible, from one form or state into another. To the alchemists of old, this meant the conversion of one physical substance into another, particularly base metals such as lead into valuable silver and gold. To the modern scientists, this means the transformation of one element into another by one or a series of nuclear decays or reactions.

Although people worked with gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, lead, carbon, sulfur, and mercury in ancient times, they had little understanding of chemistry and could write little about it. At this time chemistry was an art, not a science. The Egyptians were the first to produce extensive written documentation of chemical procedures, at the beginning of the Christian era, and Egypt is generally identified as the birthplace of chemistry. These writings indicate that the development of methods for transmuting one substance into another was one of the principal early goals of their investigations. During the several hundred years that followed these writings, the alchemists attempted to develop schemes to transmute base metals into gold and silver through various chemical manipulations of mixtures and distillations. The alchemists were spurred on by what appeared to be some successfor example, production of very small amounts of gold from lead ore by their chemical procedures. (This gold was undoubtedly present in trace amounts in the original ores and was not produced by transmutation.) The ultimate folly of the alchemists turned up during the Middle Ages with the search for the philosopher's stone, a substance that could be mixed with base metals and, through purification, convert them into gold. It was never found.

Because each element has a different but fixed number of protons in the nucleus of the atom, which is the atomic number, the transmutation of one chemical element into another involves changing that number. Such a nuclear reaction requires millions of times more energy than was available through chemical reactions. Thus, the alchemist's dream of transmuting lead into gold was never chemically achievable.

Although the alchemists failed to find a method for the transmutation of base metals into precious metals, a number of important chemical processes resulted from their efforts. For example, they extracted metals from ores; produced a number of inorganic acids and bases that later became commercially important; and developed the techniques of fusion, calcination, solution, filtration, crystallization, sublimation, and, most importantly, distillation. During the Middle Ages, they began to try to systematize the results of their primitive experiments and their fragments of information in order to explain or predict chemical reactions between substances. Thus the idea of chemical elements and the first primitive forms of the chemical Periodic Table appeared.

Ironically, nuclear transmutations were taking place virtually under the noses of the alchemists (or under their feet), but they had neither the methods to detect nor the knowledge to use these happenings. The discovery of the nuclear transmutation process was closely linked to the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896. Nuclear transmutations occur during the spontaneous radioactive decay of naturally occurring thorium and uranium (atomic numbers 90 and 92, respectively) and the radioactive

daughter products of their decay, namely the natural decay series. As an example, the 232Th decay series is shown in Figure 1. The superscript 232 represents the atomic mass, which is the total number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus of the atom. In this decay series, a 232Th nucleus starts the process by spontaneously emitting an α -particle (a He nucleus containing two protons and two neutrons). This reaction transmutes the Th nucleus into a nucleus with two fewer protons and two fewer neutrons, namely 228Ra. Then the 228Ra nucleus spontaneously emits a β -particle (an electron), which converts a neutron in the nucleus into a proton, raising the atomic number of the resultant nucleus by one with no change in atomic mass, yielding 228Ac. This sequence of successive α and β decays continues from one element to another until the stable 208Pb nucleus is produced (see Figure 1). There exist two other naturally occurring decay chains as well, one starting with 235U (the actinium series) and one starting with 238U (the uranium series). In addition to these three decay series, fourteen other radioactive isotopes exist in nature, ranging from 40K to 190Pt, which transmute by decay into stable elements.

The idea of transmutation of elements in the natural decay chains did not accompany the discovery of radioactivity by Becquerel. However, Marie and Pierre Curie extended the investigations of Becquerel using a variety of

U minerals and found the radioactive properties to be not a function of the physical or chemical forms of the uranium, but properties of the element itself. Using chemical separation methods, they isolated two new radioactive substances associated with the U minerals in 1898 and named them polonium and radium. In 1902 Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy explained the nature of the process occurring in the natural decay chains as the radioactive decays of U and Th to produce new substances by transmutation.

Lord Rutherford and his group of scientists were the first persons to produce and detect artificial nuclear transmutations in 1919. He bombarded nitrogen in the air with the α -particles emitted in the decay of 214Po. The transmutation reaction involved the absorption of an α -particle by the 14N nuclei to produce 17O and a proton (a hydrogen nucleus). This reaction can be written as

14N + 4He 17O + 1H

Lord Rutherford was able to detect and identify the protons produced in this nuclear reaction and thereby demonstrate the transmutation process.

Until 1934, only naturally occurring radioactive elements were available for study. However, in January of that year, Irene Curie (daughter of Marie Curie) and Frederic Joliot reported that boron and aluminum samples were made radioactive by bombarding them with α -particles from polonium to produce the two new radioactive products, 13N and 30P respectively. This discovery established the new fields of nuclear chemistry and radiochemistry and sparked their rapid growth.

With the development of nuclear reactors and charged particle accelerators (commonly referred to as "atom smashers") over the second half of the twentieth century, the transmutation of one element into another has become commonplace. In fact some two dozen synthetic elements with atomic numbers higher than naturally occurring uranium have been produced by nuclear transmutation reactions. Thus, in principle, it is possible to achieve the alchemist's dream of transmuting lead into gold, but the cost of production via nuclear transmutation reactions would far exceed the value of the gold.

see also Alchemy; Nuclear Chemistry; Nuclear Fission; Radioactivity; Transactinides.

Robert J. Silva


Armitage, F. P. (1906). A History of Chemistry. New York: Longmans, Green.

Freidlander, Gerhart; Kennedy, Joseph W.; and Miller, Julian Malcolm (1964). Nuclear and Radiochemistry, 2nd edition. New York: Wiley.

Partington, J. R. (1957). A Short History of Chemistry, 3rd edition. New York: Macmillan.

Romer, Alfred, ed. (1964). The Discovery of Radioactivity and Transmutation. New York: Dover Publications.

Seaborg, Glenn T., and Valens, Evans G. (1958). Elements of the Universe. New York: Dutton.

Seaborg, Glenn T. (1963). Man-Made Transuranium Elements. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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transmutation of elements, conversion of one chemical element into another. The expression has both historical and contemporary significance. The transmutation of certain metals into gold by means of a substance called the philosopher's stone was one of the two most ambitious quests of the alchemists (see alchemy); the other was for the elixir of life that would cure all diseases, restore youth to the aged, and make youthfulness eternal. The possibility of finding the philosopher's stone harmonized with ideas long generally held, and honest and able persons once hoped to find it. Now and then a charlatan professed to have found it.

In modern times it has been found that a transmutation from one element to another actually does occur in the process of natural radioactivity. Transmutation of elements can be achieved artificially by the bombardment of elements with high-speed particles or ions using a particle accelerator. Both artificial and natural transmutations involve changing the number of protons in the atomic nucleus. The transuranium elements are created in this manner. When a nucleus is bombarded with neutrons from an atomic pile or nuclear reactor, some of the neutrons will be absorbed, resulting in an unstable nucleus. The nucleus then becomes more stable by converting one of its neutrons into a proton by beta decay, becoming a nucleus of the next heavier element in the process.

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trans·mute / transˈmyoōt; tranz-/ • v. change in form, nature, or substance: [tr.] the raw material of his experience was transmuted into stories | [intr.] the discovery that elements can transmute by radioactivity. ∎  [tr.] subject (base metals) to alchemical transmutation: the quest to transmute lead into gold. DERIVATIVES: trans·mut·a·bil·i·ty / -ˌmyoōtəˈbilitē/ n. trans·mut·a·ble adj. trans·mut·a·tive / -ˈmyoōtətiv/ adj. trans·mut·er n.

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transmuteacute, argute, astute, beaut, Beirut, boot, bruit, brut, brute, Bute, butte, Canute, cheroot, chute, commute, compute, confute, coot, cute, depute, dilute, dispute, flute, fruit, galoot, hoot, impute, jute, loot, lute, minute, moot, mute, newt, outshoot, permute, pollute, pursuit, recruit, refute, repute, root, route, salute, Salyut, scoot, shoot, Shute, sloot, snoot, subacute, suit, telecommute, Tonton Macoute, toot, transmute, undershoot, uproot, Ute, volute •Paiute • jackboot • freeboot • top boot •snow boot • gumboot • marabout •statute • bandicoot • Hakluyt •archlute • absolute • dissolute •irresolute, resolute •jackfruit • passion fruit • breadfruit •grapefruit • snakeroot • beetroot •arrowroot • autoroute

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transmutation †change of condition XIV; conversion into something else; (alch.) XV; (biol.) XVII. — (O)F. transmutation or late L. transmūtātiō, -ōn-, f. L. transmūtāre (whence transmute vb. XV); see TRANS-, MUTATION.

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transmutation In physics, formation of one element or isotope from another by radioactive decay or by bombardment with energetic particles. The term was formerly applied to alchemists' attempts to convert base metals into gold.

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1. The transformation of one element into another by radioactive decay.

2. The change of one species or type to another.

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transmutation The transformation of one element into another by radioactive decay. The term is also sometimes used for the change of one species or type to another.