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What makes wire gold so special, anyway?

May's science question.
April 30, 2019
The Ram's Horn wire gold specimen.

The Ram's Horn wire gold specimen. CREDIT: Harvard University

The Ram’s Horn proved to be only about 70% gold.

At April’s Science on Tap event in Los Alamos, guests were introduced to the unique characteristics of wire gold by Dr. Sven Vogel, a physicist with the Lab’s Materials Science in Radiation and Technology division. While it’s safe to say the audience was familiar with gold in general, most were unfamiliar with its rarest form, wire gold. Wire gold has long been a bit of a mystery, with mineralogists unable to explain its twisting shape or even describe its fundamental structure until recently, when scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory Neutron Science Center (LANSCE) were finally able to “see” inside the world’s finest wire gold specimen, the Ram’s Horn. 

Using neutron characterization techniques developed in Los Alamos, secrets held by the Ram’s Horn since its 1887 discovery in a Colorado gold mine were brought to light and offered some surprising insights. For instance, unlike wire silver, which is composed of hundreds to thousands of crystals in a single wire, wire gold is composed of only a few, single crystals. The Ram’s Horn specimen also proved to be only about 70% gold, with silver making up the remaining 30%. Finally, the team found that the gold-silver alloy was bonding at the atomistic level which resulted in the specimen being a consistent ratio of gold to silver throughout, rather than having pockets of higher gold or silver content. Ultimately, studying wire gold presents researchers at Los Alamos with new information about geological and geochemical processes, which in turn offers a fresh look into how natural materials form and how that information can be applied to today’s scientific dilemmas. 

For more information on the extraordinary capabilities and collaborations happening at LANSCE...