Science for Youth

The lost Nobel prize

Hiya Islam | Published: 00:00, Jun 24,2018


I am just above platinum, right below silver. My value is known far and wide, my dominance makes the Nobel awardee boast with pride. What am I?

That’s gold, folks. Weighing 200 grams of 23-carat gold (but things have changed since 1980), the Nobel Prize was established by Swedish genius, Alfred B Nobel, inventor of dynamite and holder of 3-5-5 patents. But, what had occurred in George de Hevesy’s mind that he resolved to erase every trace of the gold medals won by German scientists, James Franck and Max von Laue?

The year was 1940 and World War II waged on. Hitler was unstoppable. His army pounced from one country to another gaining territory. And soon, Denmark had fallen prey. Niels Bohr was in grave trouble for in his possession was two blocks of gold engraved with the names of Franck and von Laue. They had smuggled out their medals to Bohr in Copenhagen for safekeeping, to prevent them from getting confiscated by the army and whatever evil Hitler controlled.

Discovery of the medals would bring death sentence for all. In no time, the German army would show up at the Institute for Theoretical Physics and turn the place upside down. It was too risky to bury them or hide them anywhere. It was then that a member of Bohr’s team, George de Hevesy thought of dissolving the gold. Is that even possible? I mean, plop a chunk of gold in your fish tank and come back a decade later. And it’s still there lying good as new, fit for market sale. A metal known for its insane stability, how can you expect it to just fade away into nothingness! But it’s possible; all hail ‘aqua regia’, a reddish-orange solution containing HCl and HNO3 at 3:1 ratio. Neither of these alone can do the job though. HNO3 oxidizes gold metal into gold (III) ion. HCl stabilizes this ion with its chloride forming AuCl4 complex. Circumstances forced Jewish scientist, de Hevesy, to leave Copenhagen in 1943. With the defeat of Nazis, he returned to his laboratory to find his precious beakers safe and untouched, high up on the shelf. What now? Adding a couple of more ingredients, de Hevesy was able to reverse the reaction! The precipitated gold was sent back to the Nobel Foundation. The medals were recast and re-presented to the fellow laureates in 1950’s.

This Hungarian gentleman who saved the day later went on to win his own Nobel Prize in 1943 for his work on the use of radioactive isotopes as tracers.

Aqua regia or royal water treats platinum and palladium in the same manner. This process comes in handy when extracting metals from microelectronics. However, many other metals escape this fate. (But it dissolves gold, anyway!) Aqua regia must be prepared by adding nitric acid to hydrochloric acid and never the other way around. It’s an exothermic reaction producing poisonous fumes. Once prepared, it should be used as soon as possible. Extended duration makes this mixture unstable and likely to explode, if stoppered. Lastly, contact with any compound containing C-H bonds can be deadly.

Some basic chemistry, adrenaline and colorful solutions at ready can really blow minds and fool a troop of soldiers.

More about:

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email