'I remember· in eighth grade walking home from my science fair I was like, "Oh wow, one day I want to submit a paper to a national competition", and that's about as far as my imagination ever got.'
For Mariangela Lisanti, a seventeen-year-old high school student from Westport, Connecticut, reality carried her somewhat further than her eighth-grade dreams.
Modern Alchemy - Turning $35 into $200,000
Mariangela's entry, Conductance Quantization in Gold Nanocontacts took first prize in both the 2001 Siemens Westinghouse Science and Technology Competition and the 2001 Intel Science Talent Search. Using $35 worth of equipment from a local electronics store, she built a device that accurately measures conductance quantisation - and then represents the almost infinitesimal resulting voltage with a discrete binary number. Her efforts earned her a total of $200,000 in scholarship funds.
According to the judges, Mariangela's discovery will have applications in the new and growing field of nanotechnology, where single atoms or molecules will be used to fabricate minute electronic devices with applications for microscopic motors and other devices in medicine and industry. Future applications of her discovery will, for example, help create faster and more efficient computers, medical implants that interact safely with the body, and tiny robotic systems for space exploration. And while nanotechnology only uses small amount s of gold in individual applications, this exciting technology holds great promise to consume significant quantities of gold once it evolves.
A Metal's Changing Role
Its superior malleability, conductivity and resistance to corrosion have long made gold a practical as well as an attractive metal. Today, thanks to advances in electronics, medicine and space exploration, new technological applications for gold are continually being developed.
While gold plays an important role in the world of high technology, the reverse is also true: the high-tech revolution is also important to the gold industry. Since gold mining is expensive and labour-intensive, miners have actively sought technological advances that can lower the cost of production while improving efficiency and safety, especially important in today's challenging gold market. Technology may also provide the key to addressing growing environmental concerns about the impact of mining activities on land, wildlife and local communities.
New Jewellery Technologies
Jewellery fabrication continues to consume the lion's share of the gold produced today. The challenge for manufacturers is to fashion products that will continue to appeal to consumers in today's very competitive market place. New innovations and technologies are allowing fabricators to design a range of products that were previously thought impossible.
In some cultures, 24-carat gold is used for jewellery, which serves both as investment and adornment. But it has been impossible to manufacture 24-carat gold items with the necessary strength and hardness for everyday wear. Recently, however, scientists have developed several micro alloys of high-carat gold - alloys with a gold content or 99.5 per cent or higher, but with the hardness of 18-carat gold. This is accomplished by alloying gold with tiny amounts of hardening alloys, such as calcium, beryllium, or rare earth metals.
If properly processed, the result would be gold that can be fashioned into jewellery with a 24- carat hallmark and lustre and the hardness and strength to maintain its form and finish day in and day out. Micro-alloyed 22-carat gold is already being marketed by Three-O Company in Japan and is also being developed by Mintek in South Africa and PureGold in California.
New processes are also being developed for powder -metallurgical jewellery. Primarily used at this point for wedding rings, powder metallurgy allows the manufacturer to pour a powderised gold alloy into a mould, press it into the shape of the mould, and then fire it into a piece of jewellery. This virtually eliminates wasted material and enables the fabricator to layer different colours and types of gold into unique patterns.
While jewellery is the mainstay of gold fabrication demand, the surge in computers and consumer electronics has resulted in a dramatic increase in the use of gold in electronics and other industrial applications.
Over the eight-year period from 1992 through 1999, gold fabrication in electronics increased by more than 39 per cent, from 174 million metric tonnes to 243 million metric tonnes. In fact, this sector grew by nine per cent just over the 1998 - 1999 year. In the years to come, as automobiles, workplaces and homes become increasingly more computerised and automated, demand for gold connectors and fittings in electronic application s will only increase.
The U.S. Consumer Electronics Association predicts that sales of electronics equipment will grow by more than 42 per cent by the year 2004. If this projected growth holds true around the world, global demand for gold in electronics could rise from 243 metric tons in 1999 to 345 metric tons in 2004.
Compared to other metals such as platinum and palladium, gold has always been thought to be relatively inactive as a catalyst - but this view seems to be changing. Few developments may allow gold to replace or augment additional catalysts, resulting in a wide range of potential industrial applications.
Recent innovations and research have shown that when properly prepared, gold can actually be preferable to more conventional catalytic materials. For example, platinum and palladium require very high temperatures for catalysis to occur. After a car is started, the autocatalyst can take some time to become effective, since it must warm up along with the engine. Adding lower-temperature catalysis - gold - to the mix could dramatically shorten the warm-up period, making the apparatus more efficient in reducing carbon monoxide emissions. If successfully developed, the widespread use of gold in automotive catalysis could result in an increase in demand for gold in the range of 200 to 500 tonnes per year, according to some analysts.
Gold is attractive in other industrial catalytic applications, where ambient catalysis is necessary for long periods of time, such as air filtration for large, sealed buildings such as hotels and hospitals.
Gold in High-tech Medicine
While gold has long played a role in the world of medicine, technologies are leading to new - in some cases life-saving - applications.
Surgeons use gold instruments to clear clogged coronary arteries. Injections of microscopic gold pellets help retard prostate cancer in men. Some forms of cancer are treated with colloidal gold - gold mixed into a solution that is taken internally. Gold's superior reflectivity, conductivity and resistance to corrosion make it ideal for use in precision lasers, which literally give new life to patients with once -inoperable heart conditions and tumours
From pinpointing destruction of cancerous cells to rapid emergency surgical procedures, to delicate surgery on eyes and brain tissue that was previously not possible, these gold-reliant lasers are revolutionising medicine. Most recently, gold-coated lasers are being used to rejuvenate skin tissue damaged by burn s and injuries, while leaving the surrounding healthy tissue unaffected. Because of its inert and benign nature, in most cases, gold can be used inside the human body without fear of corrosion or harmful physical reactions. ,
Dr. John Fackler, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Toxicology at Texas A&M University, has discovered light emission properties of certain gold compounds, which he says react to the presence or absence of certain compounds or acids. This might lead to the development of sensors to detect and pinpoint the location of the disease.
And soon doctors will be able to test patients for infections, cancer, AIDS, and other diseases and get immediate results by using genetic probes affixed with clusters of gold molecules that adhere to targeted DNA material.
Scientists at MIT - the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - recently developed a means to dispense medicine from inside the body, eliminating the need for patients to remember when to take their medicine. It is a microchip, the size of a human thumbnail, with more than 1,000 separate tiny compartments that can hold medications in solid, liquid, or gel form. A tiny electrical charge is applied to the thin gold foil cover of a silicon chip, causing the compartment to open and the precise dose of medication to be released. Micro-components such as those already in use for pacemakers will deliver the electric charge either in response to a timer - or when micro-component sensors indicate that life-saving medicines such as insulin are required in the patient' s system.
These applications may not use much gold in any single product, but collectively they represent a major increase in demand.
Gold Supply Technologies
As important as technical innovations are to the future of demand for gold, similar breakthroughs are critical to gold's supply as well. In the face of lower prices, substantial reductions in production costs have been achieved through significant gains in productivity, more effective and wide-ranging exploration activities and the harnessing of technology.
The best example of how technology has lowered the cost of production is heap leaching, which has revolutionised the gold business over the past 20 years, allowing the retrieval or lower-grade gold that would previously have been impossible, or impractical, to mine. This technology, combined with others, such as carbon-in-pulp, has revived gold mining in the United States and elsewhere and has fostered the introduction of gold mining in other areas.
Other new technologies are allowing miners in South Africa to work productively in underground mines more than two miles deep, retrieving once inaccessible gold. South Africa's DEEP MINE program is designed to solve technical problems to allow mining at a depth of 5,000 meters (3.2 miles, or 16,368 feet).
In Australia, Brandrill has developed a non-explosive rock-breaking technology called PCF (Penetrating Cone Fracture ) that is safer and cleaner. The non-explosive propellant, which is still in testing, is designed to produce less toxic fumes, flyrock and collateral damage to the mine infrastructure than conventional explosives and could extend the productive lives of many of South Africa's deep mines.
Abo in Australia, miners are using computers and satellite technology to find and recover gold in the vast Australian interior. As in North America, huge open-pit mines utilise giant equipment that didn't exist a couple of decades ago. Until the 1980s, most gold mining was conducted underground. But thanks to innovations in heap-leach technology, carbon-in-pulp recovery, and computerised mine planning and operations, productive, large, open-pit, heap-leach operations are now the norm.
The RAND Report
New high-tech sensors, processing, and communications abilities are enabling the gold mining industry to achieve this type of advances being realised in other industries. According to lo New forces at Work in Mining, a recent report by the RAND institution (a US-based non-profit research and analysis organisation), The IT revolution is having a significant impact on today's mining industry, particularly at the mine site. Some examples include :
- New technologies for computer-aided mine planning, design, and operations are enabling mine operators to use virtual reality to construct and operate the most efficient mining facility possible
- Mine equipment monitoring with Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites helps operators make optimal use of their people and equipment
- GPS equipment linked to surveying and precision drilling and ore removal helps pinpoint and evaluate ore bodies
- Interactive computers across the mine site equipment integrated operations and eliminate duplication, confusion, and waste.
The report's authors surveyed mining industry executives determine what future technological innovations offer the greatest potential for the industry. Among them:
- New sensors that will help better identify and analyse ore bodies and characteristics, while monitoring for chemical releases and equipment problems
- New GPS technologies that will help managers and dispatchers keep track of and make the most productive use of equipment and manpower
- More advanced, more rugged computer hardware that will link mining equipment with computer systems, and still be able to withstand the rough treatment and harsh conditions in mine sites
- Software more specially targeted at mining operations will help analyse data collected at the mines
- Better, integrated communications systems that will link underground mines with the surface, to wireless radios, cellular and electronic communications capabilities.
But the RAND Report cautions that, despite this innovations, mining companies must also concentrate on a number of factors, including employing and maintaining skilled workers, taking into account the impact on human health and the environment and maintaining the support of customers and the communities in which they operate.
Environmental Concerns and Innovations
A critical measure of the relationship between the gold mining industry and the communities it operates in is its access to resources - both mineral and financial. Increasingly, this access is being made contingent on the industry being able to demonstrate its ability to protect and improve the environment whilst carrying out its activities.
In the US alone, federal laws and regulations increasingly govern nearly every aspect of mining, helping keep the air, soil, and water as clean as possible. The only way to curtail the increasing constraints on mining operations is to proactively demonstrate a commitment to environmental protection and to foster the long-term environmental and economic health or the communities in which gold mines operate:
Again, new technologies are helping the industry face this challenge. One example is the search for alternatives to mercury and cyanide as reagents. Mintek, working with the National Steering Committee of Service Providers to the Small-scale Mining Sector, have developed and demonstrated a process based on chloride leaching, which employs relatively inexpensive and readily available reagents to replace mercury amalgamation. When the tailings have been filtered out of the chloride leach solution, a separate reducing agent is used to remove powdered gold.
This reducing reaction, which is very selective results in gold product that is much purer than achieved through amalgamation - 99.9 per cent vs. 70 to 90 per cent - at about the same cost.
In Australia, researchers at Monash University are studying the replacement or cyanide in industrial gold leaching with chloride and activated carbon. Previously, miners using the activated carbon and chloride solution process to convert gold ions to gold metal had to destroy the carbon to recover the gold -which is very expensive. Monash scientists report they have found two forms of activated carbon that do not destroy the gold chloride ion and can be stripped without destroying the carbon. Monash is working with Rand Mining of Perth on a pilot program to test the process in Kalgoorlie.
Bioleaching represents another promising innovation. At the Pering Mine in South Africa, Billiton has constructed an industrial scale thermophile bioleaching test-reactor facility. The major breakthrough is that rather than mesophile (low-temperature) bacteria, Billiton uses thermophile (high-temperature) bacteria, found around hot springs and other high-temperature environments. Because these bacteria feed on the surrounding sulphur and arsenic, there should be an increase in the effectiveness of the bioleaching process. US-based Newmont Mining has patented yet another a bioleaching process that also shows great promise. This exciting new technology could eventually help produce gold more efficiently by breaking down pyrite and exposes the gold for follow-up cyanide treatment.
Gold's Bright Future
The work of today's scientists - and students like Mariangela - holds out the promise that while gold is an ancient metal, its most exciting clays may lie ahead.
As a global industry, it's up to us to meet the challenges in the market, in the environment, and in our communities, to live up to that promise.