There are elements, such as palladium, that cost more than gold. In the past, alchemy tried unsuccessfully to magically manufacture metals. What if science could do it now? Is it even possible? Well, at least they came pretty close: science invented a chameleon metal.
The question has little of alchemy and a lot of chemistry. Researchers at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities set their sights. They thought to turn any metal into gold. They were led by Paul Dauenhauer, professor of chemical engineering. They invented an innovative device. It electronically converts one metal to behave like another. It was called a catalytic capacitor.
Demonstrated that some materials can be electronically modified to give them new properties. Opens the door for other non-precious metal catalysts. For example, applications for renewable energy storage or manufacture of renewable fuels.
Precious metals such as ruthenium, platinum, rhodium or palladium have unique electronic surface properties. That is, they can act as metals or as metal oxides. This makes them essential for controlling chemical reactions. The researchers relied on the behavior of electrons on surfaces. One theory was successfully tested: adding or removing electrons could turn a metal oxide into something that mimics the properties of another metal.
The paper with the work is titled Alumina Graphene Catalytic Condenser for Programmable Solid Acids. It is in the journal of the American Chemical Society, JACS Au.
“The atoms really don’t want to change their electron number. But we invented a catalytic capacitor that allows us to adjust the number of electrons,” Dauenhauer explains. “This opens up a whole new one for controlling the chemistry of some metals. We can make abundant materials act like precious metals.” In this way, science invented a chameleon metal.
“We combined a low-cost aluminum alumina film and graphene, which we were then able to adjust. It then took on the properties of other materials,” the researchers recount. “This exceeded our expectations,” they add.