The study of alchemy has been out of practice for a very long time. But, thanks to pop-culture, its general precepts are still remembered. Alchemy actually had a number of goals and purposes, but attempts at transforming lead into gold are the most remembered by far.
Chrysopoeia, the transmutation of other elements into gold, was a central goal for many alchemists. However, it was but one idea in all of alchemy. Alchemists devoted their time to studying and understanding everything they could about matter. By knowing everything about matter and substance, alchemists sought to produce perfection in all materials. In theory, the master alchemist would be able to create any matter he desired, such as gold from lead.
To reach such mastery over the material world, alchemists sought to discover or create what they called the “philosopher’s stone.” This material represented the key to matter transmutation. With it, alchemists could create an Elixir of Life to gain immortality, or turn base metals into noble ones.
Since the study of matter was central to alchemy, it is considered to be the proto-science that gave rise to the modern studies of medicine and chemistry. With the advent of these new sciences, alchemy fell to the wayside as quackery. But, you may be surprised to know that chrysopoeia is quite possible after all – just not in the way alchemists imagined.
Gold can be synthesized either with artificial transmutation (using a particle accelerator) or nuclear transmutation (using a nuclear reactor). During either process, the atoms of one element can be transmuted into another element through nuclear reactions or radioactive decay. Unfortunately, these types of transmutations are extremely cost prohibitive for gold production. For the most part, the transmutation only occurs at the atomic level for a short period of time – usually less than five seconds before the newly created gold atoms become unstable. Perhaps in the future, scientists will fulfill the dreams of the ancient alchemists by demonstrating a total mastery over matter.