Transmutation Definition and Examples

How physicists and chemists learned to transmute elements

The Cavendish Laboratory at the University of England is a research lab where scientists performed transmutation experiments
The Cavendish Laboratory at the University of England is a research lab where scientists performed transmutation experiments.

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The word "transmutation" means something different to a scientist, particularly a physicist or chemist, compared to the ordinary usage of the term.

Transmutation Definition

(trăns′myo͞o-tā′shən) (n) Latin transmutare -- "to change from one form into another". To transmute is to change from one form or substance into another; to transform or convert. Transmutation is the act or process of transmuting. There are multiple specific definitions of transmutation, depending on the discipline.

  1. In the general sense, transmutation is any transformation from one form or species into another on.
  2. (Alchemy) Transmutation is the conversion of base elements into precious metals, such as gold or silver. The artificial production of gold, chrysopoeia, was a goal of alchemists, who sough to develop a Philosopher's Stone that would be capable of the transmutation. The alchemists attempted to use chemical reactions to achieve transmutation. They were unsuccessful because nuclear reactions are required.
  3. (Chemistry) Transmutation is the conversion of one chemical element into another. Element transmutation may occur either naturally or via a synthetic route. Radioactive decay, nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion are natural processes by which one element may become another. Scientists most commonly transmute elements by bombarding the nucleus of a target atom with particles, forcing the target to change its atomic number, and thus its elemental identity.

Related Terms: Transmute (v), Transmutational (adj), Transmutative (adj), Transmutationist (n)Transmutation Examples

The classic goal of alchemy was to turn the base metal lead into the more valuable metal gold. While alchemy did not achieve this goal, physicists and chemists learned how to transmute elements. For example, Glenn Seaborg made gold from bismuth in 1980. There are reports that Seaborg also transmuted a minute quantity of lead into gold, possibly en route via bismuth. However, it's much easier to transmute gold into lead:  

197Au + n → 198Au (half life 2.7 days) → 198Hg + n → 199Hg + n → 200Hg + n → 201Hg + n → 202Hg + n → 203Hg (half life 47 days) → 203Tl + n → 204Tl (half life 3.8 years) → 204Pb (half life 1.4x1017 years)

The Spallation Neutron Source has transmuted liquid mercury into gold, platinum, and iridium, using particle acceleration. Gold may be made using a nuclear reactor by irradiating mercury or platinum (producing radioactive isotopes). If mercury-196 is used as the starting isotope, slow neutron capture followed by electron capture can produce the single stable isotope, gold-197.

Transmutation History

The term transmutation may be traced back to the early days of alchemy. By the Middle Ages, attempts at alchemical transmutation were outlawed and alchemists Heinrich Khunrath and Michael Maier exposed fraudulent claims of chrysopoeia. In the 18th century, alchemy was largely supplanted by the science of chemistry, after Antoine Lavoisier and John Dalton proposed atomic theory.

The first true observation of transmutation came in 1901, when Frederick Soddy and Ernest Rutherford observed thorium changing into radium via radioactive decay. According to Soddy, he exclaimed, ""Rutherford, this is transmutation!" To which Rutherford replied, "For Christ's sake, Soddy, don't call it transmutation. They'll have our heads off as alchemists!"

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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Transmutation Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2021, Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2021, September 7). Transmutation Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Transmutation Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).