Commodities, Features, Gold

Gold’s hidden story

gold technology

Gold is an extraordinary metal that has played a role in human society for millennia. The search for gold has helped forge cities around the world, while the metal itself is at the heart of many of our financial, spiritual and religious systems and beliefs. Our relationship with this single element really is unique.

This ubiquity within our society means that gold is instantly recognisable by almost anyone on the planet. From beautiful pieces of gold jewellery to images of bars locked away safely in vaults around the world, the metal’s unique yellow hue seems to lend itself to being seen and admired.

But there is another part of gold’s story where the very opposite of this is true. It is hidden away, playing a role in all of our lives where relatively few people are aware of its influence and importance.

To better explain this, we need to consider some of the physical and chemical properties gold has for a moment. Firstly, it is an excellent conductor of electricity thanks to the sea of loosely bound electrons that you find in its atomic structure.

Secondly, as any jeweller will tell you, gold is an extremely easy metal to “work”, meaning it can be stretched into incredibly fine wires, or easily plated onto all kinds of surfaces.

Finally, as we all know, gold doesn’t corrode or tarnish. Most metals have one or two of these properties, but the combination of all three is unique to gold and this has made it a critical metal to the electronics industry for many decades.

Indeed, gold is found in almost all high-end electronic devices. The computer or smartphone you’re reading this article on will contain gold. The vehicle you drove to work in today contains gold. We really are surrounded by the metal, often without even knowing it.

Recent years have seen some fluctuations in the total quantities of gold entering the electronics sectors, but in 2022, demand was just over 250 tonnes.

Gold used in a computer circuit.

These fluctuations are driven by a variety of factors, but the three critical considerations are: 1) the prevailing macroeconomic conditions influencing end user purchasing for consumer electronics, 2) ongoing electrification in society and 3) thrifting, miniaturisation and new technology development in the electronics industry.

The interplay of these three components of demand is complex, but ultimately gold’s unique properties will see it continue to play a major role in the industry especially as the march of electrification and our seemingly unquenchable thirst for new and improved device functionality continues.

While the electronics sector dominates industrial demand for gold, the metal is used in a number of different technologies which may come as a surprise to many people. The quantities used are often vanishingly small, but the impact and importance of the technologies themselves cannot be underestimated.

One example of this is in the medical diagnostics field, where gold is a critical component of lateral flow assays (LFAs). If you, like me, spent much of 2020 and 2021 testing yourself for COVID-19, then you have been looking directly at gold probably without realising it.

To explain this, we have to once again revert to a brief scientific intermission. As already discussed, gold is inert; it doesn’t tarnish or corrode. This effectively means it is unreactive from a chemical perspective.

However, if you take gold and turn it into increasingly small particles, this changes. These minute nanoparticles of gold are reactive, and have a host of new properties that make it useful in a range of different fields. Diagnostics is one of those fields.

So back in 2021 when you were running your COVID-19 antigen test, the purple line you were peering at was made up of millions of tiny gold nanoparticles. Billions of tests used around the world every year all rely on this particular form of gold, as do other types of tests for conditions such as malaria, HIV-AIDs and sepsis.

These types of tests are a crucial medical tool, offering quick, accurate and cost-effective diagnostics to people all over the world and gold is a critical component within them.

Gold nanoparticles have been shown to be of huge promise in a considerable number of scientific fields. Another example of this is in the field of electrochemical catalysis, where materials are designed to speed up the rate of reactions crucial to the synthesis of many feedstock chemicals we all rely on.

Gold has been shown to be a highly effective catalyst in the transformation of carbon dioxide (CO2) to carbon monoxide (CO), which obviously has huge potential in the field of climate change if it can be developed at scale.

The World Gold Council is currently working with the National Research Council of Canada on this project with the target of identifying developable gold-based catalysts to test at pilot scale using state-of-the-art self-driving laboratories.

Australian researchers are also looking into the potential of gold to improve another important electrochemical process: the oxygen evolution reaction. Professor Anthony O’Mullane and his team at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) are using small quantities of gold to bolster the reactivity of thin film catalysts.

These are just a small number of examples of gold’s industrial applications. There are dozens more, spread over the entire research and development (R&D) landscape.

In 2021, the World Gold Council developed The Golden Thread, which began as a series of short documentaries charting some of these applications and the impact they have had on society; from early space exploration to cutting-edge medical advancements.

The Golden Thread has since been expanded with a feature-length documentary fronted by Idris Elba which further investigates the broader story of gold and the impact it has had on the world.

Gold’s place in our society is unquestionable. It plays a part in some of the most important moments in our lives, and is recognised and revered by people the world over.

But it is also hidden away all around us, quietly and efficiently helping to operate our devices and diagnose illness. It is also at the heart of so many different aspects of R&D, and can be found in laboratories everywhere.

Many of tomorrow’s leading scientists will learn their trades today using gold, and this is something that should not be underestimated as part of gold’s story.

Words by World Gold Council consultant Trevor Keel.

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