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Gold slips past Nazis

5 July 2017
How a precious metal medal dissolves into hiding

Dr Karl gives us a basic acidic chemistry lesson that has the potential to outsmart an army.

A gold Nobel Prize medallion

A few years ago, a colleague of mine was leaving the town of Fargo in North Dakota after visiting his grandmother. He was at the airport and his computer bag was passing through the x-ray scanner.

Now my colleague, Professor Brian Schmidt, had just won a Nobel Prize. The Nobel Prize medal is made of gold, which is very dense. The x-ray scanner at the airport was showing a completely black circle inside his computer bag – which is very unusual. The dense gold was completely stopping the x-rays.

The Transport Security Administration (TSA) officer said, “There is something in your bag.” Brian Schmidt opened his computer bag and pointed at the little carry case that contained the Nobel Prize medal and said “I think it’s probably this.”

The TSA officer said, “What is this?” And Brian replied, “A large gold medallion.”

Like me, and most people on Earth, the TSA officer had never actually seen a physical, gold Nobel Prize medal. So he asked, “What is it made of?

“Gold.”

“Who gave this to you?”

“King Gustav of Sweden,” was the reply.

The TSA officer asked, “Why did he give it to you?”

And Brian replied, “Because I was the leader of a team that discovered that the expansion rate of the universe is accelerating.”

The security officer replied, “It's a Nobel Prize? You're a Nobel Prize winner?” And Professor Schmidt replied, “Yes.”

Once the TSA officer had worked out that he was carrying a gold Nobel Prize medallion to show to his grandmother, everything was fine.

But not too long ago, having a Nobel Prize medal with your name on it could have been a death sentence.

This was the case in April 1940, when the Nazis invaded Denmark.

Some years earlier, two German Nobel Prize winners (one a Jew and the other a Jewish sympathiser) had sent their gold medals to legendary physicist Niels Bohr in Copenhagen for safekeeping, so they wouldn’t get confiscated.

Sending gold out of Hitler’s Germany was illegal, so the medals posed a real danger to Bohr’s laboratory staff. If the invading Nazis found the gold Nobel Prize medals engraved with the names of Max von Laue and James Frank, it could lead to the execution of the German Laureates.

One member of Bohr’s team, George de Hevesy, suggested burying the medals in the grounds of the laboratory. But, as Neils Bohr and all forensic scientists know, the only thing you can never hide is a hole in the ground. So de Hevesy decided to dissolve the gold.

Even though the hero of the story – George de Hevesy – went on to win a Nobel Prize himself, it doesn’t take a genius to outsmart an army.
Dr Karl Kruszelnicki

Like all precious metals, gold is pretty inert. But even gold won’t stand up to aqua regia – a 3-to-1 mixture of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid.

The two acids work together like a super-destructive tag team. The nitric acid gets in first, ripping electrons off a few gold atoms at the surface, turning them into charged gold ions. Then it’s the hydrochloric acid’s turn. Chloride ions – the Cl in HCl – react with the charged gold ions, dissolving them. Once all the charged gold ions have been mopped up this way, the nitric acid gets in there and makes some more. Repeat indefinitely and you can, very slowly, dissolve gold.

So as the Nazi invaders march through Copenhagen in April 1940, George de Hevesy starts dissolving the two gold Nobel Prize medals that were ‘illegally’ taken out of Germany.

It would have been a race against time: these medals are not tiny. They are 66 millimetres across, weigh about 200 grams, and are made of 23 carat gold. But eventually the two medals dissolved.

George de Hevesy placed the beaker of orange-coloured aqua regia containing the dissolved gold Nobel Prize medals high up on a shelf, and left it. Three years later, in 1943, Nazi-controlled Copenhagen was no longer safe for a Jewish scientist, so de Hevesy left for Sweden.

When de Hevesy returned to the laboratory after the Nazi defeat, his beaker of orange-coloured liquid had not been touched.

Using some basic chemistry, he got the dissolved gold back as a precipitate, and sent the metal back to the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, who had originally awarded these medals.

The gold was then recast and presented to its original owners, Max von Laue and James Frank, in a ceremony in 1952.

Even though the hero of the story – George de Hevesy – went on to win a Nobel Prize himself, it doesn’t take a genius to outsmart an army.

Sometimes you just need some basic – or in this case strongly acidic – chemistry.

© Karl S. Kruszelnicki Pty Ltd 2017

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