There are many stories of converting one element into another (such as the story of the Philosopher's Stone), but to actually mutate one material into another (at least with our our current understand of the atom) we need a source of electrons, protons, and neutrons. And what more convenient source than to take from the air around us?

This process is perfect, but naive, so you don't need to worry about Gamma Radiation or Leptons from removing the protons and neutrons, but the system is inherently stupid(only smart enough to be given steps).

My Question: Given that my machine draws from everyday air to create any substance, what are the steps that would take the most optimal number of protons, electrons, and neutrons from the air's elements.


  • The machine can only remove a single elementary particle (electron, proton, neutron) per-step. It must draw what it needs from ordinary air.

  • If you have a bond such as a molecule or a diatomic molecule, the machine can separate it into its base elements, and it does so automatically(for the scope of this question). This is mostly to simplify the process, so you don't worry about water vapor in the air, you can just deal with the Hydrogen(which basically has removed as many as possible already), and Oxygen.

  • The machine cannot hold those elementary particles in reserve for later steps. In other words, there's no adding them back into the elements. Whatever the machine cannot use from the air element or molecule it took from the air must be able to be released safely back into the air.

  • The results of the process cannot include unsafe levels of radiation or unstable molecules or isotopes.

  • The process cannot be harmful to the machine's operator, while not in the room, he is not shielded by anything, but the walls(which are negligible, not made of lead or something) and any lingering effects that would prevent the operator from filling the room up with more air, entering, and then restarting the process.

  • The process of harvesting and reconfiguring the elementary particles should remain undetectable (another reason why radiation should be kept to a minimum).

Extra Credit

  • Please let me know what stopped you from deconstructing a particular molecule further than you did (e.g., "removing one more electron would cause nuclear fission" or "would leave remaining molecule in a highly unstable state").
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    $\begingroup$ Of potential interest would be the book Bloom by Wil McCarthy. In that book, they had Ladder-Down reactors, which could create any low atomic weight atom from larger atoms, like Uranium. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Oct 9 '17 at 2:30
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    $\begingroup$ "The radiation isn't being shielded": what radiation? You did not say nothing about no radiation! Anyway, to the question "how do you remove the most neutrons, protons, and electrons from air, without the radiation being harmful or suspicious and detectable?" the answer is obviously, in a bottle or othe suitable recipient. You pump the air in the bottle (no radiation!) and take the bottle with you, thus removing all the neutrons, protons, and electrons together... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Oct 9 '17 at 2:41
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    $\begingroup$ It's rather ̶n̶u̶c̶l̶e̶a̶r̶ unclear what you are trying to do. You want to use air as reservoir of subatomic particles for construction of heavier elements particle by particle? If so, yo are aware that 12 grams of carbon contain ~6*10^23 atoms? If each modification took nanosecond, that's still billiard times too slow to be useful. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Oct 9 '17 at 8:23
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    $\begingroup$ Yes its not clear what would constitute a good answer, or even an answer that you would be interested in. Can you reword it to specify what problems need to be over come? $\endgroup$ – Slarty Oct 9 '17 at 9:20
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    $\begingroup$ @JustinThyme The unfortunate thing is that I've only changed it back to the original question's intent, but I wasn't able to fix it fast enough in some cases, so the entire intent has been changed multiple times, perhaps I should've left it. I am not a veteran, and this question really has been turned into a bit of a mess. I'm sure it was only people's intent to clear up the confusion, and explain why some of the conflicts in the edits wouldn't be physically possible, but now I have answers that don't... answer it. I'm not sure how to continue on now. $\endgroup$ – David Archibald Oct 10 '17 at 16:11

Electrons can be harvested reasonably safely, we do it with electric generators all the time. The problem you will face is that atoms, all atoms, tend to dump large quantities of Gamma Radiation when they rearrange themselves internally, and they will rearrange themselves every time you pluck out a proton or neutron. That's going to need a lot of shielding, like centimetres of Lead heavy shielding. Even with sufficient shielding to take care of the Gamma internal changes can also result in the production of strange, and detectable, particles called Leptons, usually in the form of Muons and Neutrinos, which you really can't shield for because they can pass through several miles of normal matter without flinching.

  • $\begingroup$ Genertors cause electrons to move, but they don't deplete anything. A battery is the closest we come to harvesting electrons. $\endgroup$ – JBH Oct 9 '17 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ I was aware of the difficulty of removing particles from the nucleus, and the philosopher's stone should take care of it by itself, (a better system to remove them outside of the scope), but not the radiation that would come from after from the resulting isotopes, because it is an inherently dumb system that is only capable of removing a proton neutron or electron over and over. $\endgroup$ – David Archibald Oct 9 '17 at 23:27
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH and capacitors. They store electrons in massive quantities. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Oct 10 '17 at 0:40
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH Generators still remove electrons from one place and move them elsewhere, (if they didn't you wouldn't get any flow of electricity) that is the definition of a harvest, taking material elsewhere. $\endgroup$ – Ash Oct 10 '17 at 10:13
  • $\begingroup$ No, to harvest means to deplete something. There is less of what you started with at the source than after the harvest is over. Generators only facilitate movement, but unless a battery or capacitor (good point, @JustinThyme) is involved, an electrical circuit must be a closed loop. Generators don't harvest. Heck, Ash, change the word "generator" in your answer to "battery" and move on. $\endgroup$ – JBH Oct 10 '17 at 17:16

All of them if you don't care about the material you create with.

This answer supposes you can effectively remove protons, electrons and neutrons without the act of removing them creating radiations.

The comment about pumping the air in a bottle was pretty clever, and it is still valid even if you ask for the elements to be pumped one by one (it only becomes very very tedious, and potentially too long, but if you can do it infinitely fast it works).

The idea is that you start by isolating one molecule from the air (DiAzote and DiOxygen mostly) then you take one electron from it (it makes an ion, which is not radioactive), then one proton (it makes something neutral, maybe a bit radioactive but it is still only one molecule so the radioactivity is very small), then start again, removing a few protons when it makes the molecule more stable. In the end you will have removed all the molecule, so the result is stable. Start again with the next molecule.

This suppose that you are reforming molecules somewhere, using everything you take from the air. You have a big margin for that, but if you want to create a specific material with that (like gold) you will probably have to waste a big of the elements to keep the proportion between protons and neutrons. If the material doesn't matter then you can create solid air or whatever that would use up to all the air (just keep enough of it to breathe)


Elementary particles are not storable

From a comment that you posted:

What is a safe way to remove individual protons, neutrons, or electrons over and over from air to make them literally different elements.

The answer is: nothing, because they are not elements

The elementary particles are not elements. If the elementary particles had been such that the atoms could be taken apart and the particles stored like elements, then the Philosopher's Stone would not have been the magical thing that it is, it would just have been a part of junior high-school physics.

An atom is not anything like a loose pile of things that you can just pick apart and put together willy-nilly. The fundamental forces of reality very effectively prevent that. And while electrons and protons are easy to obtain, (ionize hydrogen for protons, use a plain old cathode ray for electrons), there is no way you can store them like LEGO® pieces in a box. And neutrons definitely cannot be obtained easy nor stored free.

The bullet points you have written are mutually exclusive: if you break apart an atom — or put one together again — you will get radiation. There is no way around that unless you employ magic.

Also, as it turns out, the elementary particles do not get along well with their own kind. Hence splitting things into its elementary particles and storing those together is an absolutely terrible idea. xkcd: what-if explains why.

TL;DR? You create a black hole. Bye bye Earth...

  • $\begingroup$ While I was gone, the question was edited to make it more clear, but it changed the intent. That sentence, along with others I added was an attempt to clear it up; that we were talking about air, and extracting particles from it, but in the end it has appeared to make it more confusing. I've created a chat room to see what we can do to fix the confusion. $\endgroup$ – David Archibald Oct 10 '17 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ Theoretically you can use a magnetic bottle for the Protons and Electrons can't you? In very low numbers as I recall, like two or three in a cubic centimetre. $\endgroup$ – Ash Oct 10 '17 at 17:34

Just to make the answer generated in chat official, the use of a fusor might provide a useful lead.

A fusor is a device that uses an electric field to heat ions to conditions suitable for nuclear fusion. The machine generates an electric potential difference between two metal cages inside a vacuum. Positive ions fall down this voltage drop, building up speed. If they collide in the center, they can fuse. This is a type of inertial electrostatic confinement device.

Much credit to @MichaelK for suggesting it.


First of all, please edit your first sentence to complete the thought(s). (Arguably, you should form 2 sentences from it). Au exists as 196Au with atomic number 79. That means it has 118 neutrons, and 79 electrons and protons. BY DEFINITION, chemical reactions do not change sub-atomic particles, nor do they change the nucleus of any atom. So, the "reactions" aren't chemical, they're nuclear, and so are the "equations".
Many sources, including Wikipedia contain charts indicating which isotopes are stable. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isotope#/media/File:Isotopes_and_half-life.svg.
You should look at that, and pay special attention to the rows (Neutron number is on the vertical axis). The dark brown, almost black cells are stable. So, what you wish to do is by taking either a step up or a step right to move from one of the atoms (specific isotopes, actually) in air H,C,O,N,Ar,etc. to move to (79,118). I'm not going to do that drudge work for you. You'll note that there are several rows between At. No. 19 and 79 that do not have a dark brown cell in them. That is, you can't get there from here without going through a radioactive element, even if you assume you can magically manipulate the atoms so that the one you 'tear a piece off of' remains, and the new isotope/element also doesn't spontaneously decay. However, it might be possible (again, I'm unwilling to do your work for you) to chose a path through an isotope which has very little high-energy radioactivity/radiation decay modes (Wikipedia has charts on the types of decay, and their energy, I believe. If not Wikipedia, then one of the (US) National Labs will have it.) So, in the cases where you have to "cross" a radioactive element (like Potassium, K) you should choose the route which has decay products which are most easily contained. The obvious question is why should that be a problem for a technology that can manipulate individual nucleons? It seems inconsistent to me that you can manipulate atoms and yet not be able to contain the radiation.

  • $\begingroup$ Please add some blank lines to your answer to make it more readable. $\endgroup$ – user32463 Oct 9 '17 at 22:56
  • $\begingroup$ If the process is fast enough, what is the problem with unstable elements? Unless they have a half-life less than microseconds, the process should quickly pass them before they decay. The problem would be the containment vessel to hold one atom at a time as it is being built up. The radiation given off by just one atom would probably not be distinguishable from background radiation. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Oct 10 '17 at 0:48
  • $\begingroup$ You're totally right, if it weren't for the fact that it's not containing the radiation/gamma rays/leptons/neutrinos of removing protons and neutrons; it's not making any(whether this is possible or not is out of scope). Apparently someone(this is likely my fault) misunderstood my question and edited it for me. I don't really care about the second half, actually using it such as their edit of gold. I want to know how many electrons, protons, and neutrons, can be removed from air etc. $\endgroup$ – David Archibald Oct 10 '17 at 1:35

Ooops! 197Au. Typo.
Also note that a pound of gold is about 1.5E24 atoms. Between 40Ar and 197Au there would be 39+106= 145 steps. To convert a pound of gold in a minute would be 1.5E24x145 ~ 220E24 ~ 2E26 steps which works out to 2E26/60 = 3E24 steps per second meaning each step would take far less time than even the fastest chemical reaction. Meaning the chemistry is irrelevant here, don't worry that converting Oxygen to Fluorine might chemically react. It won't have anywhere near enough time to do any chemistry.

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    $\begingroup$ You should edit your original post rather than creating a new one with the correction. $\endgroup$ – JBH Oct 9 '17 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding! As @JBH said, it's best practise to edit your original answer in order to keep it right and avoid clutter and confusion, then delete this answer. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – Mithrandir24601 Oct 9 '17 at 23:20

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