Turning Lead to Gold

By Anupum Pant

Hunt for a process to convert a brick of lead into gold was probably the most elusive quest during the olden times when alchemy was around. However, alchemists, who were mostly dismissed as pseudoscientific quacks, actually did some good ground work to make their dream of turning lead to gold into a reality.

And then came the 20th century, when transmutation of one element to another became fairly common. In fact nuclear reactors started working on the same principle. So, besides breaking of uranium atoms and combining of hydrogen atoms to form helium, did it actually become possible to transmute lead into gold using the same process?

Sure it did. Today it is totally possible to make lead (Atomic number 82) release 3 protons to turn into gold (Atomic number 79). Not just in theory, people have actually done it successfully in laboratories. For one, Glenn Seaborg is said to have done it in the year 1951.

To do this, you’d need a particle accelerator. And if you plan to use it as a get rich quick scheme, then you are in for a bad news. Transmuting lead to gold in a laboratory consumes massive amounts of energy, even if you have to do it in extremely minute volumes. So much that the price of doing it exceeds the price of gold by a very big amount. Also, only a very minute volume of gold comes out this way.

To make a single ounce of gold this, it would cost you one quadrillion dollars. You could just buy the same amount for $1300 instead.

Can a Single Sand Grain Power a Car for 10 km?

By Anupum Pant

I literally binge on YouTube, especially on science videos. Since I’ve been doing it for a long time, I follow a huge number of channels and among them, are some channels that need a special mention. For that, my plan for today was to create a list of five to ten spectacular YouTube science channels that are not popularly known. But while carrying out the research to collect data for this little list, I happened to stumble upon something which needs a post dedicated to it. So, I thought of delaying my original plan of collating a list of those lesser known science channels.

Background

To tell you about the thing I discovered, you need to know this first:

MinutePhysics: You know MinutePhysics right? I mean, who doesn’t know them. If you think you’ve never come across a video of their’s, try going to their channel. There is a high chance you’ll recognize their signature style of simplifying science – through animated videos. With more than 2 Million fans on YouTube, they have a huge following and almost every video of their’s goes viral, to some extent. It was started by Henry Reich and I’m guessing there is definitely a team behind the channel – If some one from MinutePhysics is reading this, like the one I did with Jaan Altosaar from UsefulScience.org, I’d love to do a short chat with you, if you have the time.

MinuteEarth: Now, the same people who created MinutePhysics also upload similar styled videos explaining the planet earth at MinuteEarth. You should check that out too. But that is not all I’m talking today…

MinuteLabs

I’m not sure how I landed on the Youtube page of MinuteLabs.io, but the instant I spotted the dot io in the end, I knew there was more to this channel than just two videos. I watched one of those videos – video (embedded below)

I could instantly connect to what Jasper was doing in the video. I often have such questions and I make these queries on Google all the time. But I had never endeavored to do what he (maybe with his team) did on his website.  And that brought me to MinuteLabs.io‘s Mass-energy scale.

Mass-Energy scale

When you land on the Mass-Energy scale page of MinuteLabs, you’ll find a vertically massive scale, listing out a couple of things on the right and left side. So, this is a scale which is based on the popular equation E=MC2 .

It lists out a number of everyday (plus other) objects and the energy associated with them on the left side. On the right side of this scale are the masses of some other objects. This is how it works…

 minutelabs mass energy scale

For example, if you take the mass of a sand-grain and multiply it with the constant C2, you’ll end up with some amount of energy (E) that is *theoretically* stored in its mass. To get an idea about how much this energy is, they have collected that huge list of energies associated with everyday objects on the left scale.

After referring to the scale, you’ll find that the amount of energy that is theoretically stored in the mass of a sand grain is almost equal to the energy that is needed to move a family car by 10 km. Even though you don’t really have an access to all that energy, Isn’t that huge, for a “very fine sand grain”! Check out the scale to see how huge things can get…

What I appreciate about it

Firstly, I appreciate the amount of effort it would have taken to collect that sort of data. I know that because I’ve tried doing something similar once. Trust me, It is a pain!

Secondly, I appreciate the fact (and again the effort) that their media is made using the latest web technologies. This makes their media so accessible to people.  Today, all you need for learning science, is an internet connection and a nice browser, like Chrome or Safari.

Besides this particular media (Mass-Energy scale) they have created, there are a couple of others that have already been up and running since the start of this year. I’m sure, like me, you’ll have a couple of hours of fun, learning and playing around with them. Cheers to simplified science and MinuteLabs for doing this project.

A Request

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Radiotrophic Fungi Feeds on Gamma Radiation

By Anupum Pant

Background

On April 26th 1986 a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine and is still considered the worst nuclear power plant accident ever (another one happened in Japan recently). The massive explosion spewed out huge amounts of radioactive particles into the air which spread till Europe.

As a result of this tragedy, it was reported that 31 people died within a few months due to acute radiation sickness. In total, more than 200 people were affected. It is estimated that deaths caused due to cancer by Chernobyl may be around 4,000 among the 5 million persons living in the surrounding area.

The disaster was responsible for turning green trees, in the 10 square kilometers of pine forest around the reactor, into red trees. Eventually the trees died and the forest has been called the “Red Forest” ever since.

Today, an area covering 30 km in all directions from the power plant has been labeled as the “zone of alienation“. Mostly it is uninhabited by humans (excluding those 300 odd residents who have decided that they won’t leave). Till date, the radiation levels remain extremely high. Workers who are responsible for rebuilding the place are only allowed to work for a maximum of five hours a day for one month and are asked to take a 15 day rest after that.

With an environment where the radiation level even today is about 500 times higher than the normal environment, it is estimated that the area will remain uninhabitable for humans for the next 20,000 years.

But something lives inside the still-highly-radioactive ruins

Few years back when a robot was sent into the devastated reactor, it returned with samples from the walls of the ruined power plant. These samples contained a black colored substance which piqued the researchers’ interests.

After performing several tests on these samples they concluded that the black samples comprised of two kinds of fungi. Both of them contained a pigment called melanin (the pigment that colors our skins). The fungi had been using melanin to convert radiation into chemical energy. It was mind-boggling for everyone to learn that amidst the toxic sarcophagus a creature was living and was feeding on gamma radiation for making food and to grow. Scientists decided to call it, the “radiotrophic fungi” – the fungi which feeds on gamma radiation.

It is like plants using solar radiation for making food, just that, in this case, the frequency of the electromagnetic radiation being used, is different.

Feeding the spacemen

Scientists say, since the pigment is also present in our skins, and as ionizing radiation is prevalent in outer space, in the future, astronauts could probably rely on melanin as a source of food during long missions or for living on other planets; Just like the radiotrophic fungi does.

According to Dr Casadevall:

While it wouldn’t be enough energy to fuel a run on the beach, maybe it could help you to open an eyelid.