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.
Unlike gold and silver, there is enough Aluminum in the world. It is in fact, the third most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. Also, it is about two times more abundant than Iron – an element which has a complete branch of metallurgy revolving around it – Abundance of Aluminium is 2 times of that! Still, for the middle class of the 19th century, bricks made of Aluminium were things they could only dream to buy – Aluminium costed more than gold back then.
The same metal, Aluminium, certainly shines like silver. But our generation almost has no respect for it. Today, it is one of those blasé metals that is used to make disposable soda cans.
Back then, the US, to show off its wealth, decided to cap the Washington monument with a 3 kg pyramid of Aluminium. Later, since enterprising individuals found out a way to extract it in a very efficient manner, Aluminium became something that was not all that rare. People in the 19th century knew how precious it was. That was because, back then there was no good way to extract aluminium from its ore.
In the 19th century Napoleon III invited the King Siam to a dinner. He then gave himself Gold Cutlery, his troops Silver & the King of Siam Aluminium. This was no insult but an honour because aluminium was the most valuable metal on the planet at that time. Today, aluminium is $1,800 a ton while Gold is $50 million. – [Source]
In the mid-1800s, an Aluminum ingot would sell for about $550 per pound. Fifty years later, it costed around 25 cents for the same amount. What changed? Extraction.