As we approach St. Patrick’s Day, we find ourselves beset by imagery of diminutive leprechauns dancing about pots of gold located at the end of rainbows. Of course, such visions are the part and parcel of overactive or alcohol-fueled imaginations, unless one of small stature decides to dress in green and dance a jig about a pot filled with approximately $427,000 worth of gold coinage (and, yes, someone at the Columbus Dispatch recently calculated that, if you filled a pot with 271.36 ounces of gold, that would be the current street value). And, yet, there is something seductive about the allure of a pot of pure gold that goes even beyond the market value. Its power motivated medieval alchemists to pursue the legendary philosopher’s stone, reputed to bestow upon its owner the power to convert base metals, such as common lead, into gold. Yet, our modern knowledge of chemistry informs us that such aspirations are fruitless. Or, are they?
It turns out that, technically, it is possible to convert a relatively common element (not lead, but mercury) into gold, and to do it in the comfort and convenience of your basement. All it takes is a home-built fusion reactor. You read that correctly: in basements across our great land, there are people, some as young as teenagers, who have not been able to resist the urge to build their very own nuclear fusion reactors. Granted, the primary goal of these devices is the generation of cheap, ultra-efficient power, and so far, any net power gain — i.e., power emitted from the device being greater than the power put into the device — has eluded the intrepid researchers.
In a day when many hobbies have been supplanted by television, video games, and Facebook, as well as overtime and travel related to work, it’s nice to know that some of our neighbors are still busy pursuing hobbies. While scrapbooking has a large following, and many engage in the fun of flying and racing ever-evolving radio-controlled airplanes, helicopters, boats, and cars, there are some out there who take things just a few steps further. I’ve met people who build their own stereos using vacuum tubes, who work on their cars’ automatic transmissions, and who make their own Ukrainian Easter Eggs. But, these are still pedestrian hobbies compared to the pursuits of adventurous souls who cannot resist the urge to tinker with vacuum pumps, Geiger counters, and power supplies that present a whopping 45,000 volts or more of electricity.
I know what you’re thinking. Can these things malfunction, leaving a radiation-polluted crater where your lovely neighborhood once stood? What if that unkempt, secretive fellow a few doors down is busy with very high voltages, heavy water, and who knows what else? Aside from the high voltage risk and possible exposure to dangerous radiation, these reactors are quite safe. In fact, this hobby has been spurred forward in the same way as many other more esoteric hobbies: through the Internet. The same crowdsourcing that inspires people as they trace their family trees has helped these bold hobbyists figure out how to shield the reactor to protect those nearby from hazardous x-ray emissions, for instance. Additional, and perhaps more useful, by-products from these reactors are high-energy neutrons.
Now, why would you particularly want a source of high-energy neutrons in one’s basement? Well, such little gems can be harnessed for the purpose of achieving the alchemist’s dream: making gold from mercury! It’s quite simple: “Using fast neutrons, the mercury isotope Hg-198, which is contained to 9.97% in natural mercury, can be converted by splitting off a neutron and becoming Hg-197, which then disintegrates to stable gold.” OK, that might be a little complicated, but it seems like all one needs to do is scrape together some of that Hg-198, put it into a suitable container (the kind of pot that is depicted as full of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow might be the most picturesque), turn on the power, and let the deuterium gas flow. Voila! Out comes the gold… though it seems that, even with gold going at close to $1600/ounce, there’s hardly any profit to be made using this approach. But, wouldn’t it be fun to tell your friends that you’re turning mercury into gold in your basement fusion reactor over a pint of green beer on St. Paddy’s Day?
Maybe there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow after all.