Gold and the Periodic Table

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#1 Mon, Aug 29, 2011 - 7:06pm
Joined: Jul 31, 2011

Gold and the Periodic Table

An interesting article from NPR:

A Chemist Explains Why Gold Beat Out Lithium, Osmium, Einsteinium ...

The periodic table lists 118 different chemical elements. And yet, for thousands of years, humans have really, really liked one of them in particular: gold. Gold has been used as money for millennia, and its price has been going through the roof.

Why gold? Why not osmium, lithium, or ruthenium?

We went to an expert to find out: Sanat Kumar, a chemical engineer at Columbia University. We asked him to take the periodic table, and start eliminating anything that wouldn't work as money.

The periodic table looks kind of like a bingo card. Each square has a different element in it — one for carbon, another for gold, and so on.

Sanat starts with the far-right column of the table. The elements there have a really appealing characteristic: They're not going to change. They're chemically stable.

But there's also a big drawback: They're gases. You could put all your gaseous money in a jar, but if you opened the jar, you'd be broke. So Sanat crosses out the right-hand column.

Then he swings over to the far left-hand column, and points to one of the elements there: Lithium

"If you expose lithium to air, it will cause a huge fire that can burn through concrete walls," he says.

Money that spontaneously bursts into flames is clearly a bad idea. In fact, you don't want your money undergoing any kind of spontaneous chemical reactions. And it turns out that a lot of the elements in the periodic table are pretty reactive.

Not all of them burst into flames. But sometimes they corrode, start to fall apart.

So Sanat crosses out another 38 elements, because they're too reactive.

Then we ask him about those two weird rows at the bottom of the table. They're always broken out separately from the main table, and they have some great names — promethium, einsteinium.

But it turns out they're radioactive — put some einsteinium in your pocket, and a year later, you'll be dead.

So we're down from 118 elements to 30, and we've come up with a list of three key requirements:

  1. Not a gas.
  2. Doesn't corrode or burst into flames
  3. Doesn't kill you.

Now Sanat adds a new requirement: You want the thing you pick to be rare. This lets him cross off a lot of the boxes near the top of the table, because the elements clustered there tend to be more abundant.

At the same time, you don't want to pick an element that's too rare. So osmium — which apparently comes to earth via meteorites — gets the axe.

That leaves us with just five elements: rhodium, palladium, silver, platinum and gold. And all of them, as it happens, are considered precious metals.

But even here we can cross things out. Silver has been widely used as money, of course. But its reactive — it tarnishes. So Sanat says it's not the best choice.

Early civilizations couldn't have used rhodium or palladium, because they weren't discovered until the early 1800s.

That leaves platinum and gold, both of which can be found in rivers and streams.

But if you were in the ancient world and wanted to make platinum coins, you would have needed some sort of magic furnace from the future. The melting point for platinum is over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Gold happens to melt at a much lower temperature, which made it much easier for pre-industrial people to work with.

So we ask Sanat: If we could run the clock back and start history again, could things go a different way, or would gold emerge again as the element of choice?

"For the earth, with every parameter we have, gold is the sweet spot," he says. "It would come out no other way."

Edited by: bikerspade on Nov 8, 2014 - 5:31am
Mon, Aug 29, 2011 - 10:23pm
Sydney NSW
Joined: Jun 16, 2011

I keep a quote file, and I

I keep a quote file, and I just remembered this one from zerohedge (I take absolutely no credit for writing it). Unfortunately, it appears when Tyler updated the site, some comments were lost, and I didn't keep a record of who wrote it, but I thought I would share it on this thread:

Zerohedge comment # 1532044 wrote:
Maybe, maybe not. No one has a crystal ball- and anyone who tells you they do is a liar. But here's my thinking on Platinum, for what it's worth. Platinum is a useful metal, and can be made to be beautiful when it needs to be. But it's a relative newbie, and does not have the history of the big two (Au and Ag). A similar case for platinum can be made for other useful metals, such as Ti and Cu- essentially, that when people are making goods, these are useful to have.
Silver and gold are somewhat different for the following reasons-
1. Both can be melted and recast with fire. Everything else except for copper, lead and tin require electricity.
2. Both retain beauty in a relatively unaltered state- gold does not tarnish, and silver's tarnish is actually quite nice. Both shine up immediately if you rub them with just about anything.
3. Neither are SHTF industrial metals. Yes, silver can be an industrial metal- but only in a technological culture, and the properties that make it useful (conductivity and malleability) are also shared with gold. It became the industrial use metal because it is more plentiful in the Earth's crust- that could have been inverted easily.
4. History and tradition are not negligable- people reserve the right to discard them in good times, but when the world is burning, nostalgia for better and simpler times is an incredibly powerful force. Ignore them at your peril- the time is coming when a Zippo lighter will be worth more than an iPhone- not because of the labor that went into producing either item, but because of a yearning for better days. Hedge accordingly.
5. This one is for silver only. Silver is anti-bacterial, and that's not nothing.
Platinum will have it's day. But, I don't think it's coming this time around- then again, I could be wrong. What I do know is that gold's day is coming, and silver is pretty likely to tag along for the ride. I can only hope that I can use silver instead of lead, but I have some of each in any case. I like all kinds of metals, myself- they're my livelyhood and constant companions.
Titanium shoots off sparks that look like stardust when you grind or blast it, and it's light as light can be.
Tungsten carbide can cut just about anything, if you apply the pressure in the right direction. If you break it, it can be shattered and removed from a hole with a punch.
Nitinol is an incredibly fun shape-memory alloy (It resumes it's former shape when you heat it.)
Cast iron is solid as the earth herself- and carries it's own lubricant.
Wrought iron only rusts on the surface, but does not rot away.
Aluminum conducts electricity and heat well, and is easy to carry.
Copper keeps the lights on.
Steel is a horse that never tires, and wins in any average use. It's easy to weld, and strong enough for almost anything.
A2 is hard as hell- and you can heat treat it yourself with a torch.
Nickel is cheap and shiny- I'm going to call it the commoner's silver.
Tin is cheap, and can make all kinds of useful cheap things.
Lead makes bullets and ballast- and it's almost gold, but for one proton.
Brass makes casings.
Anyhow, I could go on all day. All the metals have thier charms, but none of them are silver and gold, except for silver and gold. Even copper, which is a distant third, turns a muddy brown in a short period of time.
Au and Ag aren't going to abdicate their thrones anytime soon.