How aqua regia saved Nobel Prize medals from the Nazis

Written by: Captain Skellett // October 25th, 2010 // The Realm of Bizzare

Aqua RegiaIt was a brisk April morning in 1940, and George was in a fix. In his hands were two Nobel Prizes illegally smuggled from Germany, while outside the lab Nazi’s swarmed the streets of Copenhagen. Denmark was now occupied by the Germans, and it was only a matter of time before they entered the Institute of Theoretical Physics and searched the building.

The medals belonged to Max von Laue and James Franck, Germans who had won Nobel Prizes in Physics some years ago. Their names where on the medals, and taking gold out of Germany was almost a capital offense, carrying a punishment not to be sneezed at. George was certainly not sneezing, but his palms were sweating as if he had a fever and his heart was pounding like a drum. There might be only hours until Nazis found the medals, and his neck would certainly be on the chopping block along with theirs.

What to do? Hide it in a hollowed out book as children hide sweets? No, there was no guarantee the books would stay put, they could be sent away or burned for all he knew. Bury it then? There simply wasn’t time, a freshly dug grave would only attract attention. No, it had to be changed, made unrecognisable, hidden in plain sight. Somehow. Think George, think. To every problem there must be a solution. Keep at it until a solution appears.

A solution! Of course! The gold should be hidden in solution! To wait out the war in a nondescript bottle sitting on a shelf. The worst that would happen is it would be thrown away, and if that was to be at least there would be no tell-tale engravings to point fingers.

George looked around the lab for the ingredients to a potent cocktail. Only one thing would dissolve gold. Aqua regia, a mix of three parts hydrochloric acid to one part nitric acid. Alone neither of these acids could change gold, very few things could. Gold was considered such a rare and beautiful metal for exactly that reason, because it was unchangeable and very stable. It would not rust like iron or turn green like copper. Strong, concentrated acids would not burn a hole in gold as they would other metals. Unless of course that acid was aqua regia, royal water.

In a large flask George combined the two acids quickly, his hands now dry and mind focused. The resulting mixture was colourless for an instant before turning faintly peach and then bright orange. With one held breath he dropped in the two gold medals.

Chemistry had always attracted George de Hevesy since he had first worked on radioactive isotopes thirty years ago. His work on them had uncovered many mysteries of biology, such as what part of a growing plant captures poisonous lead to protect the rest of the plant (the roots.) He was still a mover and shaker in the field, which was growing rapidly and had even entered the realm of human experimentation. If a man was injected with a radioactive isotope, where did it go, how long did it stay there and how was it excreted?

He was, in certain circles, quite famous. Perhaps in the near future he would be holding a Nobel Prize of his own.

But for now, these two Prizes were all he had, and they were getting smaller. The magic of aqua regia was in the way the two acids worked together.

Nitric acid had the power to take small amounts of solid gold and put it into solution. On its own it wouldn’t make any difference at all, because it would only allow a tiny amount of gold to be in solution at a time, with the gold being in equilibrium between solid and soluble form.

Hydrochloric acid, on the other hand, could supply its chloride atoms to convert gold to chloroaurate. But by itself it did nothing because it couldn’t get a grip on the gold to start with.

In aqua regia, the gold was put into solution by the nitric acid, and then converted to chloroaurate by hydrochloric acid. It pushed the equilibrium across, allowing the nitric acid to pull more and more gold into solution, where it was quickly changed into another form.

Once the reaction was complete, George sealed the flask and put it high up on the shelf. There it would stay until the war was over, and perhaps in brighter years he would return and extract the gold out of the solution, and return it to the Nobel Foundation where it could be recoined and returned. If brighter days ever arrived.

——

This be fiction based on a true story. George de Hevesy is credited with dissolving two Nobel Prizes in aqua regia and storing them during the second world war, where they remained unnoticed despite careful searching by the Nazis. The gold was later recovered and recoined, and presented back to the two owners. George de Hevesy won the 1943 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on radioactive isotopes.

Captain Skellett

I be Captain Skellett. Me blog started in April 2009 when I was working full time and didn’t get a chance to talk science. Now I have changed jobs and talk science all the time, but that doesn’t stop me blogging. More About Captain Skellett   Google

   

12 Responses to “How aqua regia saved Nobel Prize medals from the Nazis”

  1. Namnezia says:

    Excellent story – how do you precipitate the gold out of solution after it’s been dissolved?

    You need to reduce the gold, which turns it back to the solid state. You can do it by adding a reducing agent, like sodium bisulphite. It’s more powerful if you can destroy the nitric acid first, which is an oxidiser and opposes the reduction. Or you can just add a buttload of sodium bisulphite, your choice.

    It’s left over night to precipitate completely, which you can check with a stannous chloride test – stannous chloride goes purple when there’s dissolved gold and clear when there’s not. Then the gold is washed with hydrochloric acid and water to remove any contaminants. Finally you dry the gold and melt it down. 99.99% purity! Booyah!

    They use it in gold refining. More info at http://www.ganoksin.com/borisat/nenam/ajm-roads-2-recovery.htm

    balasaravanan Reply:

    @Captain Skellett,
    hi i was wondering what compound/reducing agent does one utilize to precipitate platinum. I have a solution consisting of AR and Pt.

    @balasaravanan, not sure, google it!

  2. Hi there. How does anyone figure they out smarted the Nazis by meting their knoble prize medals? Once melted it is gold again so even if you remould the medals they are fake/non original. A mould would of had to of been made to re cast the fake medals as I see it because any one could use the same method and claim they are real medals from lets say the olympics. The only reason the Nazis would have left gold is not because it was melted. The Nazis knew this person had a gold medal so if they wanted it they would have taken it by way of knowledge of the medal and if the person sayed they did not have it they would of had to prove it so if you are smart enough to understand there was no reason to melt the medal because the Nazis were not going to take it in the first place. No one out smarted the Nazis. Ha ha some people make me laugh with their crap! This entire story is crazy!

    The scientists didn’t melt the gold, they dissolved it in acid. Though they did have to recast the medals, that doesn’t really make them “fake.” To quote the Nobel Prize website: “The proceedings of the Nobel Foundation on February 28, 1952, mention that Professor Franck received his recoined medal at a ceremony at the University of Chicago on January 31, 1952.” I think the ceremony makes them real. I suppose they COULD have bought random gold and presented it for recoining… seems expensive…

    Regarding your “the Nazis knew this person had a medal, so if they wanted it they would have taken it” argument – they can’t take it if it’s hidden in a buttload of acid. Touche.

    jake Reply:

    @Captain Skellett, great story i have heard it before but not in such detail, also thanks for the noble link it was very useful for me.
    and a damn good schooling you gave the gay steven hitler!

    andy Reply:

    Well I also want to add I didn’t know this story was only “half-fiction”, that is based on a story that actually did take place in the 1940s. I had been almost sure it was 100% invented, but the Nobel Prize site told me otherwise, so thank you for that.

    William Roentgen Reply:

    @Real Steven Hitler, Since it was the Nobel committee that recast the gold, I don’t think you can call them “fake.”

  3. Someone has translated this story into Spanish. Read it here

  4. Uduak says:

    Pretty nice story, i guess am falling in love with chemistry and would need assistance with any rising question among my student. This is sure a story to tell.

  5. […] medals were made, by dissolving them in Aqua Regia. Check this out for an interesting reading: How aqua regia saved Nobel Prize medals from the Nazis | A Schooner of Science Scott At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory […]






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