Gold’s glimmer is not the only reason the element is so captivating. For decades, scientists have puzzled over why theoretical predictions of gold’s properties don’t match up with experiments. Now, highly detailed calculations have erased the discrepancy, according to a paper published in the Jan. 13 Physical Review Letters.
At issue was the energy required to remove an electron from a gold atom, or ionize it. Theoretical calculations of this ionization energy differed from scientists’ measurements. Likewise, the energy released when adding an electron — a quantity known as the electron affinity — was also off the mark. How easily an atom gives up or accepts electrons is important for understanding how elements react with other substances.
“It was well known that gold is a difficult system,” says chemist Sourav Pal of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, who was not involved with the study. Even gold’s most obvious feature can’t be explained without calling Einstein’s special theory of relativity into play: The theory accounts for gold’s yellowish color. (Special relativity shifts around the energy levels of electrons in gold atoms, causing the metal to absorb blue light, and thereby making reflected light appear more yellow.)
With this new study, scientists have finally resolved the lingering questions about the energy involved in removing or adding an electron to the atom. “That is the main significance of this paper,” Pal says.
Early calculations, performed in the 1990s, differed from the predicted energies by more than a percent, and improved calculations since then still didn’t match the measured value. “Every time I went to a conference, people discussed that and asked, ‘What the hell is going on?’” says study coauthor Peter Schwerdtfeger, a chemist at Massey University Auckland in New Zealand.
The solution required a more complete consideration of the complex interplay among gold’s 79 electrons. Using advanced supercomputers to calculate the interactions of up to five of gold’s electrons at a time, the scientists resolved the discrepancy. Previous calculations had considered up to three electrons at a time. Also essential to include in the calculation were the effects of special relativity and the theory of quantum electrodynamics, which describes the quantum physics of particles like electrons.
The result indicates that gold indeed adheres to expectations — when calculations are detailed enough. “Quantum theory works perfectly well, and that makes me extremely happy,” says Schwerdtfeger.