May 25, 2012

Gold’s Hidden Role in Technology

innovation, technology

Dr. Trevor Keel, Technology Project Manager at the World Gold Council explains why gold remains the material of choice in high performance and safety critical electronics and shares some of the exciting nanogold applications emerging in green technologies.

Whenever I tell someone the story of gold and technology, they are almost always surprised and fascinated in equal measure. People associate precious metals such as silver and platinum with industrial uses automatically, but, perhaps understandably, gold’s significant jewellery and investment markets dominate perceptions of the yellow metal. Gold’s industrial demand is not as large, but at around 450 tonnes per year it still represents ~11% of overall demand.

The largest proportion of this 450 tonnes finds its way into the electronics sector. Gold is in many day-to-day objects and devices we take for granted. The computer you are reading this blog on contains gold. The braking system in the car you drove to work in this morning operates safely and efficiently thanks to gold. Even your smart phone contains over $1 of the yellow metal.

People often question why such a precious, expensive material has become so important in electronic applications. The reasons are quite simple and boil down to some basic materials science. Most critically, gold does not corrode or degrade in its bulk form unlike many other metals. Gold is also a soft, easily workable metal which means it can be easily drawn out into very narrow wires, or hammered into extraordinarily thin sheets. Combining these two facts gives you a material which is highly conductive to electricity, stable and easily worked – i.e. perfectly suited to the requirements of the electronics industry. Indeed, 2011 was a record year for gold’s use in the industry with over 320 tonnes of the metal finding its way into the majority of the electronic equipment we take for granted on a daily basis.

Gold’s bulk properties, as described briefly above, are well understood and have been exploited for many years now. However, particularly with the buoyant price of gold, what hope is there of new technical uses of the metal appearing in the future? Well, as it happens the emergence of a branch of science known as nanotechnology has re-invigorated gold research and we are now beginning to see exciting progress being made in a range of challenging fields. It is straightforward to make gold into minute nanoparticles and these tiny particles (which are thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair) display some fascinating properties. Indeed, this “nanogold” is to all intents and purposes a new material when compared to bulk gold – for example, the particles can be reactive and display a range of unusual optical properties.

One example of this promise in future technologies is nanogold’s role as a catalyst. As with gold in electronics, we all rely on catalysts but few people know anything about them – they are another critically important “hidden” technology. Catalysts are designed to make chemical reactions proceed quickly and with limited waste. All bulk chemicals, such as plastics, go through catalytic processes on the way to their final product and achieving an end-product quickly and efficiently is of benefit to us all.

Many precious metals are important catalysts and recent years have shown us that gold is no exception. Gold is now part of a proven autocatalyst formulation alongside platinum and palladium, capable of removing noxious exhaust gases from diesel vehicles. It is also becoming increasingly common in some chemical processes. Nanogold also holds promise in other areas of clean technology. Experimental work has shown solar cell efficiency can be improved when gold nanoparticles are incorporated into the cells and nanometer thin coatings of the metal potentially hold great value in improving the durability of the next generation of fuel cell technologies. Nanogold is also set to have a significant role in the medicines of the future – indeed, I will write a future blog about this subject.

In summary, gold’s story is not just one of beautiful jewellery and shimmering vaults of bullion. Gold is hidden away in many everyday objects and devices we take for granted, quietly and effectively helping to connect the world. Future technologies seem set to benefit from the properties of nano-gold, a material which can be seen as the very essence of sustainable value – small quantities of gold being used intelligently and efficiently helping to answer some of the world’s biggest challenges. Goldcorp and the World Gold Council believe this is an important part of gold’s future and we are working to make sure the most promising technologies become real products, to everyone’s benefit.

–       Dr. Trevor Keel

Goldcorp is a member company in the World Gold Council, a market development organization whose members comprise the world’s leading gold producers.

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