Okay, my first trial run, How would humans and society react to a superhero existing and saving the earth?, of social sciences with is looking some what sickly at the moment (maybe someone is preparing an answer, but it is taking a while), so maybe I will chose a more mathy social science for this stack exchange audience: .

Okay, so an inventor/tinkerer figures out how to transmute lead into by exposing it to some sort of radiation. He was able to build this machine using spare parts he had. The mass of the gold is equal to the mass of the transmuted lead. Given current gold, lead, and electricity costs, the electricity costs were 1/30th of the increase in the materials value. He doesn't publish his method, but shares it with personal inventor/tinkerer friends. Knowledge of the method grows slowly but surely.

The only difference between this gold and regular gold (as found on the market) is that this gold is about a million times purer than our purest gold. It could easily be made indistinguishable though by mixing it with impurities.

Let's say the original inventor resides in the contemporary USA, but the method does spread to other countries. What impact would this have on the economy? Note that this is ; you must supply references to economic or similar journals or other reputable sources to backup your answer. Maths usually make everything better. See this and this for details.

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    $\begingroup$ Wow, nice. I'm surprised we haven't had this yet. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ Since elements are categorized by their nuclear constituents the only way to "transmute" one element to another is via nuclear reactions. Thus, either fusion or "selective fission" (the ability to remove a single proton and/or neutron) would be required. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ @TracyCramer This hard-science economics, not hard-science physics. For all we know his machine could be magic. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ Just a check: is there any reason why society will not simply shrug and move to no longer valuing gold any more than it values lead? Are we trying to lock the value of gold in place, or are we letting it fall naturally? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ Is there a reversal process of gold -> lead? Also consider that the new gold probably won't be any purer than existing gold, as presumably any impurities in the original lead will carry through. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 21:07

4 Answers 4


Lead - Lithium = Gold?

Assuming that the method uses Lead-208, transmuting that into Gold produces Lithium-11 which almost immediately decays into Beryllium-11. Beryllium is useful as an alloy in nickel or copper. The market for beryllium isn't very large but appears to be growing and was sold for $230/pound in 2010. This inventor is going to have to be careful because powdered beryllium is carcinogenic.

Mine no more

Before this invention there was only one way to acquire gold, to dig it up or pan for it in rivers. Gold mining operations are expensive, dangerous and ecological destructive. Access to certain gold deposits is only feasible when the price of gold is above a certain price. (No one mines gold for fun, only profit.) According to this graph, the cost of mining gold in North America is \$580/oz. In a mine in South Africa, it costs \$1519/oz. Most mines cost about \$1100 to \$1300 (USD) per ounce of gold mined. Any time the cost of gold is less than these costs, the mining company takes a loss. (Gold miners are well known for using less clear accounting methods to calculate mining costs.)

This guy has created a disruptive innovation in the gold mining industry. A normally extremely expensive material has suddenly become very cheap and easy to create. Lead makes up 0.00099% of the earth's crust. Gold makes up 3.1×10^-7 %.

As of this writing, lead costs about \$0.77 per pound or \$0.05 per ounce. Let's assume \$1100/oz for gold. Since the cost of electricity is 1/30th the increase in value, leading to $36 dollars in electricity for each ounce of gold produced. At 10 cents per kilowatt hour, this is 36,000 kilowatt hours per ounce produced. In order to keep up this kind of power draw, he would need to be buy power on industrial contracts and build an actual factory to make it. For comparison, the average US household consumes about 1000 kilowatt hours per month. Let's assume \$20 in consumables and equipment costs.

Total cost for one ounce of "artificial gold" is \$36+\$.05+\$20=\$56.05. Even so, this kind of gold production is ridiculously cheap by an order of magnitude.

Effects on the Gold Market

Let's measure this in terms of the spread of knowledge and quantity available.

Inventor + 0 and first Ounce - The inventor is able to sell this for \$1100/oz and starts to payback his research and equipment costs. The larger gold market doesn't even know it's dead yet. Selling one ounce amounts to statistical noise in the market. He verifies his own samples using 'aqua regia'.

Inventor + 0 and first 1000 Ounces - The inventor has recovered his costs and wants to show proof of his invention to his friends. Gemologists and metals experts are loaned samples to verify his method but are not told where the gold came from. The inventor is now a millionaire. Our inventor has hired a security force and started construction on a high security gold factory because the power requirements for larger gold production is greater than available at the Inventor's residence.

Inventor + 2 and first 2000 Ounces - Metals experts report the unusually high quality of the gold and verify it's authenticity. The inventor has told two of his friends and they have duplicated his results. Metals experts verify their samples are also sound. The US gold market varies between 100,000 oz and 400,000 oz per day so spreading 2000oz of gold over a month goes unnoticed. Spreading out the gold sales over a monthly period prevent huge moves in the market and helps conceal the price advantage the inventor+friends enjoy. Inventor+friends will also need to find a way to deliver their gold because anyone who has no previous dealings in gold but suddenly starts supplying non-trivial quantities is going to come under suspicion.

Inventor + 10 and the first 10,000 ounces - Secrecy is paramount because a leak at this point could draw the attention of very powerful, well-backed interests, namely the Mob, every single terrorist organization and every government on the planet. No patents are filed with the US Patent Office or any international patent organizations. The Inventor and his friends spend all their time at the factory. They definitely have gold fever.

Inventor + 25 and the first 50,000 ounces - The market has noticed an influx of supply from an unknown source and started to ask questions. Talking heads assume that old pensioners are dumping their stocks or the Fed is doing something crazy....and get it all wrong. The cost of gold drops slightly on increased supply. The gold factory is in full swing but lead supplies are unaffected. The US government start to go looking for the source of this new gold supply.

Inventor + 50 and the first 100,000 ounces - The first rumors of an alchemist who makes gold from lead hit the broader markets. Many don't believe it, after all, alchemists in Europe in the Middle Ages tried and failed. The beryllium market sees an unexpected but significant increase in supply. The cost of gold continues a slow slide on increased supply. The Feds are still looking and starting to close in.

Inventor + 100 and the first 150,000 ounces - In order to avoid being captured, the Inventor breaks the story on international news that he has found a way to transmute lead into gold. After the initial interview, he sequesters himself in his factory and grants no more interviews. However, his friends and friends of friends explain the method. The metals experts referenced earlier will verify that the gold is real. The cost of gold drops like a stone because of supply shock and a loss of confidence. Shares of gold mining companies drop even more dramatically as stock holders attempt to exit a now dead industry by selling their stock. The broader stock market goes into a brief chaos mode as the news is digested.

The broader economy doesn't change much since gold, while valuable, wasn't used in a huge number of places. (Compared to a drop in oil price, gold just doesn't have the same kind of impact.) Large investment institutions like pension funds may hold a lot of gold but are also incredibly diversified so the impact is minimal. Investors who have specialized in holding gold will take a huge hit, losing 90% of their investment though this kind of investor is, hopefully, rare as every single investment strategy ever recommends diversification to guard against just this kind of devaluation.

Inventor + 10,000 and the first 1,000,000 ounces - Manufacturers pile into the market once they know the method. Everyone attempts to get into the gold market while the price still reflects the old scarcity. In a few short months after the new factories go up, gold becomes a normal commodity and floats at around \$100/oz reflecting the cost of lead and electricity plus markup. Gold is no longer the investment of last resort. Banks and governments move to platinum, silver, or palladium as a reserve metal thus forcing the cost of those metals higher.

Goldbugs have a crisis of identity as the metal they have staked so much of their identity on is now cheap and common.

While sanction evasion using gold is still useful, it doesn't pack the same price/weight ratio it once did. Platinum and palladium take over the role of sanction evasion.

Engineers the world over rejoice. Many of them are aware of instances where gold is the perfect material for a specific implementation but had to choose a different material because gold was so expensive previously. All electrical cable plugs can now be gold plated instead of just the expensive ones. Silverware manufacturers can now expand their product lines with solid gold wares instead of just silver or stainless steel. Dentists see a marked increase in gold crowns instead of porcelain.

In some circumstances, gold replaces copper. PC case modders go on a kick of making gold cases because why not? It's gold!

While gold isn't yet cheap enough to use as the cores of network cables, it does find its way into extremely high end audio cables for audiophiles. They praise the round golden tones, superior conductivity and minimal noise of the new cables. Everyone else continues to make fun of them for it.

Gold jewelry sees a huge increase in demand. It's still a beautiful metal and the previous price barrier that prevented more people from owning gold jewelry has disappeared. This demand for jewelry helps prop up demand at the new low price range. Gold is still more expensive than silver's \$20/oz.

Other inventors look for ways to extend the lead-to-gold technique to other metals. The search continues.

Fort Knox becomes a museum to a by-gone era.

Granted, this Inventor is a much cooler customer than James W. Marshall who discovered gold at Sutter's Mill in the California Gold Rush.

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    $\begingroup$ I think you're missing money laundering concerns and the international angle. Gold is sometimes used as a currency for sanctions avoidance where US efforts to limit the use of the Dollar have worked. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 5:18
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    $\begingroup$ +1 just for making fun of audiophiles. And you know, a well thought out and detailed answer...but mostly mocking audiophiles. The only thing I would like to see added was pointing out is how severe the market will suffer (this could be a cause of a depression or worse), and perhaps mention of other uses of gold based off of it's useful properties instead of it's status as a scarce metal now that it's common. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ Gold has a lot of useful characteristics such as very high ductility, immunity to oxidation and high electrical conductivity. These are all very valuable properties. I suspect that gold would find new applications in places where before it was price prohibitive. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ "In some circumstances, gold replaces copper. PC case modders go on a kick of making gold themed cases when they discover that most of the copper in their machines is now gold." Gold cases, sure, just for the novelty. But suggesting that gold will replace copper in computers is not reasonable. Gold has a resistivity about 50% greater than copper, and due to its lack of chemical reactivity is not suitable for either additive or subtractive processes. Its utility is as a plating to prevent corrosion. Plus it's still a lot more expensive than copper. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ "Inventor+friends will also need to find a way to deliver their gold because anyone who has no previous dealings in gold but suddenly starts supplying non-trivial quantities is going to come under suspicion" I fear suspicion will arise at the first ounce. Who do you sell it too? Anyone will want you provide documents about that, so either you start in a friendlier country from day 0, or I don't see how you could possibly sell it, except to the black market. $\endgroup$
    – o0'.
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 15:51

Let us assume that the inventor immediately releases the formula. There would probably be two effects: a spike in the value of lead, and a long-term plummet in the value of gold.

The world-wide production of lead is about 10 million tons, or 7.5 billion kilograms. It seems reasonable to assume that at the very least, lead equal to all the lead produced in the year is available for use (not the actual lead produced, some of which is locked up in paint and other things, but at least that much). With lead having a density of 11.34 grams per cubic centimeter, this comes to 661 billion cubic centimeters, or 661,000 cubic meters. By contrast, all the gold ever mined is almost certainly less than 15,600 cubic meters. The amount of lead in the world clearly dwarfs the amount of gold.

The initial spike would not mainly be the result of people rushing to gain huge amounts of gold for investment purposes. Anyone with the resources to make such a method work would realize that gold was about to drop. Rather, lead will become equivalent to gold for the purposes of electronics, fillings, and so forth.

At the same time, the gold market faces the prospect of a influx of gold at least dozens of times larger than its current size. Of course everyone immediately divests themselves of their gold, and the market crashes even before all of that gold has even been produced. The price of (naturally mined) gold might stabilize at that of lead, lower, or higher depending on how expensive the transformation process is.

Assume that the transformation process is of negligible cost. As the demand for lead is supplemented by buyers in these new markets, the price of lead could, ironically, rise higher than that of gold. It is purer, and the original lead still has its original uses, whereas gold has mining costs and fewer applications.

  • $\begingroup$ There must be some uses of lead that equally cheap gold could not substitute but I am not finding it easy to think of them! Gold is non-toxic and does not corrode or tarnish.... $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 14:49

In the context of global, developed financial markets, gold is a fringe asset. The result of a collapse in the gold price would be felt almost exclusively by individual (private) investors. Investment banks and private financial institutions do not hold much (if any) gold.

Most governments hold gold as part of their reserves. In the case of developed economies, the amount of gold held is a tiny fraction of their nation's total economic value. For example, according to the World Gold Council the US government holds 8133 tonnes ( 261 million ounces ), which at today's price of approximately \$1,100 per ounce equates to about \$290 billion. This is a small fraction of annual GDP and a tiny fraction of total US wealth. And similar relationships exist amongst other developed economies.

Underdeveloped economies that rely more heavily on gold reserves to lend credence to their currencies would be more severely effected and one would expect to see extreme volatility in their currency rates.

Regarding gold and government generally, John Maynard Keynes famously described the gold standard as a barbarous relic of our past - where the "gold standard" refers to a nation backing up its currency with gold; i.e., the guarantee to exchange currency for gold. As our world's economies develop, the role of gold in underdeveloped economies will diminish.

Gold does have some industrial applications, especially in technology, but the amount of gold consumed by industry is, if I recall correctly, between two and three percent of annual production. So the sudden collapse in the price of gold would not have a significant effect on industry.

This leaves jewellery industry, where losing the perception of gold being valuable would have near fatal consequences for gold jewellery.

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    $\begingroup$ I think gold jewelry would remain desirable for its beauty even if it lost its scrap value. Value would depend on workmanship and designer. People still wear silver jewelry although even a whole ounce of scrap silver is not hugely valuable (and despite silver's high tarnishability). $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 14:55

the price of lead would go up and the price of gold would drop dramatically. The magnitude of this effect would depend upon the cost the transformation process.

I think it's possible that people would create some kind of arbitrary distinction between "natural gold" and "Lead gold" and then attempt police it, preventing people from selling jewellery made of "Lead gold" under the guise of "natural gold". This is exactly what has happened with the invention of "industrial diamonds" which are molecularly identical to normal diamonds but created in a lab.

Of course, this only applies to jewellery. All industrial applications of diamonds use industrial diamonds because they are cheaper. So if there were manufactured gold, then all electronics would use this gold for their circuitry, rather than natural gold. This might slightly reduce the price of computer components. There may open up more applications of gold in manufacturing, since it is now a cheaper material.

There would be a lot of gold mines that are no longer viable with the drop in gold prices, and they would all shut down. The towns where they are located would have high unemployment. Of course, elsewhere, gold factories would open up, along with new manufacturers of gold products and of course, new lead mines. I'd say the overall effect on the economy would be fairly neutral.


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