Chinese scientists at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics have stumbled upon a way to transform copper into a metal with properties similar to gold and silver.

The research team – part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Liaoning – was shooting hot and electrically-charged argon gas at a copper sheet in order to blast copper atoms off, to test how efficient or inefficient the metal was for converting coal into alcohol. The institute runs the world's first coal-to-ethanol plant in the world, in order to make up for the insufficient supply of ethanol in Chinese industry.

The displaced atoms were collected, cooled down, and allowed to condense. The result was the production of a microscopic layer of copper ‘sand’ with properties similar to gold and silver. These properties – tolerance to high temperatures, erosion, and oxidisation – are important because they allow the conversion of coal into ethanol within a reaction chamber. Copper ordinarily has fewer electrons than gold and silver, so it is less stable. This is a process that not many precious metals can do efficiently, hence opting for an expensive metal like gold, so for copper to now be able to do it presents a huge cost-saving potential for industrial applications.

Professor Sun Jian led the research team and published their results in the journal Science Advances on December 21st last year. Speaking to the South China Morning Post, Professor Sun said: “The copper nanoparticles achieved catalytic performance extremely similar to that of gold or silver. The results… proved that after processing, metal copper can transform from ‘chicken’ to ‘phoenix’.

“[It’s] like a warrior with golden armour in a battlefield, capable of withstanding any enemy assault.”

Unfortunately for some excited people out there, this slight feat of alchemy does not mean that copper can be truly converted into gold. The altered copper still has the same density and colouring as ordinary copper, so you won’t see any coin or bar conversion any time soon, but it's realistic that we could see copper substituted for gold in smartphones and laptops over the next few years if this process can be refined.