Melting gold normally requires temperatures upwards of 1,064° C (1,947° F), but physics is never quite that simple. A team of researchers has now found a way to melt gold at room temperature using an electric field and an electron microscope.
Although we’re all familiar with the phenomenon of melting, most of us don’t really think about the physics behind the process. Essentially, when something melts all that’s happening is that the bonds between its molecules break down and they begin to move more freely. For instance, they might transition from the well-ordered structure of an ice cube to the less ordered state of a shapeless puddle of water.
Heat is the usual trigger for the change, but it’s not the only one – pressure plays a part too. Experimenting with those conditions has let scientists do all sorts of unexpected things recently, like making water freeze at temperatures well above its usual boiling point.
In the new study, the researchers tested another trigger: an electric field. The team placed a small piece of gold in an electron microscope, and observed it at the highest level of magnification. Then, they slowly ramped up the strength of an electric field to see how the gold atoms reacted.