Lesson 5 - Noble Metals
Welcome back to another wonderful week of Alchemy! I see you've all finished your midterm and made out alright. It wasn't too bad, now was it? We are currently halfway through the year and I hope you're enjoying the class so far. Remember that if you have any problems with the assignments or understanding the lesson material, please let a Head Student, a PA, or I know and we will work with you.
As you can tell by the title of the lesson, today we will be going over noble metals. If you remember in the first lesson, noble metals are rare expensive metals which are highly resistant to oxidation. They are also known as precious metals due to their value. Of course, there are a lot of metals in this category, but we will only focus on the four main ones associated with alchemy: silver, gold, platinum, and ruthenium.
First on the list is silver. Silver is a soft, lustrous, white metal that most of you have heard of. The symbol for silver on the periodic table is Ag, which is short for argentum in Latin. The word argentum actually comes from a root word in the Proto-Indo-European language meaning "grey" or "shining." It naturally occurs either in its natural pure form or as an alloy. However, most silver is a byproduct of gold, lead, copper, and zinc refining. In alchemy, the symbol used for silver represents the moon and femininity.
It has the most thermal conductivity, electrical conductivity, and reflectivity of any metal! The chart to the left shows the thermal conductivity of several metals. Notice that silver is at the top, followed by copper and gold. It's also used in telescopes, mirrors, and jewelry because of its reflective property.
The Lydians utilized silver to make their form of currency. In fact, they were the first to do this. They used a silver and gold alloy to create the coins. The Lydians were also the first civilization to have retail shops in permanent locations. The debate over when the coins were actually made is still ongoing today and is heavily talked about. However the most common view is that they were made around the reign of King Alyattes from 609-560 B.C.E. He was believed to be the first person who minted silver and gold and saw its true potential.
Here's a fun fact: silver isn't toxic and you can actually use it in food decoration. In fact it's usually used in food coloring. In some traditional Indian dishes, silver is made into a decorative foil known as vark. Silver dragées are also commonly used to decorate various desserts such as cookies and cakes. I brought cupcakes decorated in silver dragées to class today to share with everyone. Feel free to take one!
The best way to melt silver is to use a graphite crucible. A crucible is a container used to alter or melt its contents. Why does it have to be made out of graphite? That's because graphite is highly resistant to extreme temperatures and can withstand the temperature needed to melt silver. It doesn't have to be just silver we can melt. Graphite crucibles are used when we have a non-ferrous (non-magnetic) or a non-iron element. Common elements melted with a graphite crucible are aluminum, brass, gold, and silver. Crucibles also have a low reactivity towards molten metals, making it a great tool to use in the lab. We will go into the different types of crucibles and more details about them in Lesson Eight.
When buying silver, or really any noble metal, the question of whether or not it's authentic always comes up. Muggles have come up with a few means of trying to tell real silver from counterfeit. For example, silver jewelry isn't always made out of real silver. Fake silver tends to leave marks on the skin after wearing it for a few hours. Hopefully you didn't pay too much for it.
When witches and wizards, namely alchemists, are out shopping for elements of any sort, they use certain spells to tell the authenticity of that element. For silver in particular, there is a spell called the Magnetic Spell.
Name: Magnetic Spell
Incantation: Magis magnetico (ma-GEES mag-NET-tee-co)
Wand Movement: Picture drawing an X with your wand. Start from the top left and quickly bring your wand down diagonally to the bottom right. Then flick your wand up to the top right and make the same slashing movement to the bottom left.
This spell helps to identify whether or not the silver is real. As mentioned earlier, graphite crucibles are used on non-ferrous metals. This means that silver is not magnetic. When done correctly, the wand will shoot out pink smoke around the element. The spell will cause a magnetic field to appear above the metal, pulling up any fake silver. If the silver is real, the smoke around it will turn white. Do be careful though, if the spell backfires, you will hear a loud crack and your shoes will be stuck to the floor.
There are small chunks of silver on your desks; some of it is fake and some of it is real. Give it a try and don't worry about the backfire. If your shoes get stuck to the floor, I know a counter spell that can free them.
The next metal up is gold.
Gold is a soft, malleable, bright reddish-yellow metal in its purest form. Its symbol is Au on the periodic table, which comes from the Latin word aurum. Gold was believed to be in the dust that formed our solar system. Most of the gold from Earth's earliest days was said to have sunken to the core and that the gold in the crust and mantle was delivered to Earth later by asteroids and other space matter. Gold can resist being corroded by acids, however it can be dissolved by aqua regia, or royal water. It's a highly valuable and sought out metal that has been used for currency, jewelry, and other crafts before history was recorded.
The art of alchemy during ancient times was focused on taking something of seemingly little value and turning it into something precious such as turning lead into gold. Why did alchemists want to end up with gold? Why not another metal? Gold is upheld for its beauty and its unique properties. It was the king of metals. It represents perfection and flexibility, which could be a metaphor for humankind striving to be perfect.
The idea of transmutation actually branched off of observations of omnipresent changes that occur in nature along with applying correspondences and analogies. The ability to transmute base metals into gold was the main push for alchemists to attempt to create the Philosopher's Stone, which, as you learned in an earlier lesson, has the ability to turn lead into gold. Lead is the metal of time because some metals can revert into lead as a result of nuclear transmutation. Alchemists thought they could reverse this process to turn lead into gold.
The Egyptians believed that there was a metaphysical presence lying within gold. They thought gold had healing properties because of its close ties with the sun. The ancient Egyptian mythology told of the gods having skin made out of gold. Luckily enough, Egypt was a major gold mining area for much of history. Egyptian hieroglyphics from 2600 B.C.E. talked about King Tushratta of Mitanni (present-day northern Syria and southeast Anatolia), describing it as "more plentiful than dirt."
Much like the Egyptians, Paracelsus also believed that gold received its influence from the sun. He wrote that gold was the heart of the universe. Alchemists believed that colloidal gold would help harmonize the body on every level (physical, metaphysical, etc.). Colloidal gold is a colloidal suspension of gold nanoparticles in a fluid such as water. This means that the gold particles are insoluble and dispersed throughout the solution, unable to settle or taking a very long time to settle. Alchemists also believed that gold would help cure disorders such as depression, melancholy, fear, sorrow, and much more. The rich color of gold gives it, as well as our magic, certain characteristics such as vitality, health, radiance, and virtue.
Some cultures would consume small pieces of gold because they believe it would help balance their spirit. Like silver, it can also be used as decoration in modern and traditional food. There are also European beverages that contain flakes of gold leaf. In medieval times, the use of gold in cuisine would be a way to flaunt the host's wealth. Unfortunately, I didn't bring food with gold flakes however I hope you're satisfied with the cupcakes. If you want seconds, go right ahead!
Our next element is Platinum.
Platinum is a dense, gray-white transition metal. The periodic table symbol for platinum is Pt. It's the least reactive metal, yet it's the most ductile of all the noble metals. Platinum is a very heavy metal and that can actually lead to health issues upon exposure. Short-term exposure can cause irritation of the throat, nose, and eyes while long-term exposure can lead to skin and respiratory allergies. Since it has a high resistance to corrosion, platinum isn't as toxic as other metals. Most of platinum's natural deposits are located in South Africa, which accounts for 80% of the world's production of the element. It's quite rare as only a few hundred tonnes are produced annually, making it a major commodity.
Platinum has been around for quite some time. It was noticed around the pre-Columbian era in Ecuador. The indigenous people used alloys containing platinum to produce artifacts. The artwork from this time period was quite interesting might I add. It's definitely worth looking at in your spare time! The first European reference occurred in 1557 when Julius Caesar Scaliger wrote about an unknown noble metal found around Mexico that no Spanish artifice or fire could melt.
The discovery of platinum was credited to a Muggle astronomer and the first Spanish governor of Louisiana, Antonio de Ulloa, along with a Muggle mathematician Jorge Juan y Santacilia. They were sent on the French Geodesic Mission proposed by King Louis XV in the 18th century. This expedition to Ecuador was done to measure the roundness of the Earth and to measure length of the degree of latitude at the Equator. Ulloa and Santacilia remained in Ecuador from 1736 to 1744. During their time there, they discovered platinum and also anticipated the discovery of platinum mines.
An interesting use for platinum is that it can be used to fight cancer. Studies have shown platinum to be effective in fighting against tumors so they use it in antineoplastic agents in chemotherapy. There are three different types of platinum-based chemotherapeutic treatments: cisplatin, carboplatin, and oxaliplatin. Platinum is also used in laboratory equipment, dentistry equipment, thermometers, and jewelry. Platinum and cobalt can also be combined to create strong permanent magnets.
In alchemy, platinum helps open your awareness to your inner-peace as well as inner-knowledge. Platinum is revered for its endurance; it represents our determination, grit, and perseverance in seeing our manifestations and works to completion. Notice how the symbol is the Sun and the Moon combined. That's because alchemists believed platinum was the amalgamation, the combination, of gold and silver.
To wrap things up, we'll end today with Ruthenium.
Ruthenium is a metallic silvery-white element. The symbol for ruthenium on the periodic table is Ru. It's extremely rare, only being the 74th most abundant metal found in the Earth's crust. Most deposits are found in the Ural Mountains, North America, and South America. Other occurrences would be in small deposits found around South Africa and Ontario, Canada.
Ruthenium is apart of the platinum group on the periodic table. Platinum group? What is that? Believe it or not, platinum has its own family in the periodic table consisting of six elements: platinum, ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, and iridium. These six metals share similar physical and chemical characteristics and they even tend to be found in the same mineral deposits.
Ruthenium was found by a famous Baltic German chemist and naturalist named Karl Karlovich Klaus, who was also known as Carl Ernst Claus. He was a professor at Kazan State University. Klaus was also one of the first to apply quantitative methods to botany. He received platinum ore samples in 1840 and tried to isolate noble metals found in the ore. Four years later, he discovered ruthenium as well as its atomic weight and chemical properties. He was award the Demidov Prize for this discovery and used the money to send financial help to his family.
Ruthenium is mostly known for being used in wear-resistant electrical contacts. It's very sturdy by itself, but it becomes harder when combined with platinum. Ruthenium contains a chemical that is known to stain the skin and it's also found in used nuclear fuel. I encourage you to wear dragonhide gloves while handling this metal.
Ruthenium is represented in alchemy by a circle overlapped with a cross. Alchemists believed the symbol to be connected to divinity. This concept was so favored that the symbol was later adopted by the royal families. The royals sought its power due to the whole belief that monarchies rule by divine right. This means that the monarchy is not subject to earthly authority, but that an overseeing divine being put them in power. Ruthenium is also known to give witches and wizards a sense of self-empowerment in its presence. It's certainly no Felix Felicis, but it's still powerful enough in its own right.
Of course, what would you do without a little homework? You have a short quiz and a video assignment about silver and gold for this week.
There is also an extra credit assignment where you observe the metals we learned in class today and jot down your observations. The metals are set up at the lab tables in the back. There's enough room at each station for four people at a time so make sure to take turns. I have extra dragonhide gloves if anyone forgot to bring their own pair to class today.
When you're through, make sure to clean up after yourselves and I'll see you next week!