Beam solves the 'case of the gold'

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By Roger Snodgrass

Several valuable nuggets have been locked in a safe every night at Los Alamos National Laboratory lately, and that isn’t a reference to weapons codes or nuclear secrets.

A New Mexico State University neutron physicist working with a geologist from Ohio has kept some precious pieces of raw gold in the vault at the Lujan Neutron Scattering Center.

That’s where they are secured when Heinz Nakotte is not actually peering inside one or another to see how it’s made.

Nakotte took a couple of examples out of the safe Thursday to demonstrate what he called “the big question.”

Could neutrons help geologists, natural history curators, investors and collectors tell the difference between conventional gold nuggets and what turns out to be a super class of gold, known as single-crystal gold?

Crystalline gold is not valued by weight alone, but also by its shape and appearance. There is a big difference, it turns out, as much as 10 times the value, between gold grown from a single crystal and ordinary gold.

“This is a perfect single crystal,” Heinz said, pointing to a pyramid shaped piece with inward glittering folds on one of the sides. “The edges are well formed but the faces are not fully developed.”

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