Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Nanotechnology
Name: H.D.
Status: student
Age: 20s
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 1999 

Will it ever be possible for nanotechnology to create a true form of alchemy? If nanobots are built on the molecular level, couldn't they then manipulate atoms to change one element into another (possibly by either stripping or adding electrons)?

Not nano enough. To change one element into another you have to change the number of protons in the nucleus. If you just take away an electron, you get an ion of the same element. You might one day see nanobots weaving polymers or assembling DNA strands, but alchemy seems remote.

By the way, a true form of alchemy already exists. Nuclear reactors change elements into other elements simply by adding neutrons to their nuclei. The initial result is usually unstable and decays to some other element which usually is also unstable, and so on until a stable nucleus remains. Not a very cost effective way of making gold (the usual target of alchemists) but it is true alchemy. Tim Mooney

Actually, elements can be converted into different elements by normal radioactive decay and by induced processes in nuclear reactors and particle accelerators. Nanobots wouldn't work: atomic nuclei are so much smaller than molecules, and the energies involved in nuclear reactions are so high, that a molecular tool couldn't possibly carry out a desired operation on an atomic nucleus.

Richard Barrans Jr., Ph.D.


To do alchemy, as we know it today, you would have to manipulate the number of proton and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom and the electrons in the atom's shells.

Nanotechnology can move molecules around but it cannot manipulate what is inside of an atom. In other words, it cannot change the nature of an atom.


Dr. Ali Khounsary
Advanced Photon Source

What would the nanobots be made of if not large collections of atoms? Besides, stripping electrons is not going to change an atom from one element to another. The element is determined by the number of protons in the nucleus. Nanobots will never achieve alchemy.


Click here to return to the Physics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory