Is there Enough Gold for the Tech Industry?

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Thursday, 12 Jun 2014 07:41 AM

By Richard Grigonis

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Since Nikola Tesla’s dream of wireless power transmission between any two points has yet to be perfected, the electronics and power transmission industries make due with conducting metals. 

In the international system of units (abbreviated SI from the French “le système international d’unités”), conductivity is measured in Siemens per meter (S/m); in U.S. customary units, it is millimhos per centimeter (mmho/cm). Its symbol is “k” or “s.”

For any fixed volume, silver has the highest conductivity of any metal (62.1 x 106 S/m), followed by copper, gold, and aluminum.

For large-scale power transmission, inexpensive wires stretched between supporting poles must be light and have structural integrity. Aluminum fits the bill.

In the electronics realm, however, conductivity is more important. Silver, unfortunately, is highly reactive chemically, tarnishes easily, and can form a nonconducting film on its surface that blocks the low voltages and currents sent among solid-state components.

Copper will also form an oxidative coating at electrical contact points, unlike gold, which is pretty much inert.

Therefore, gold can be found in just about every single electronic device: cellphones, televisions, calculators, global positioning devices, and of course computers — for example, in the edge connectors used to mount microprocessor and memory chips, the socket connectors for plug-in cables, and in fine “bonding” wire (having a typical diameter of one hundredth of a millimeter) that is used to connect parts of semiconductors such as transistors and integrated circuits.

Since minimal amounts of gold are needed to reduce corrosion in the contacts of electrical components, gold is electroplated onto sturdier metals and is also alloyed with small amounts of stronger, more durable metals such as nickel or cobalt. Thus, only about 50 cents worth of gold is used in the average smartphone.

Multiply that by a billion phones produced each year, however, with each one having a “lifespan” of about two years, and you suddenly realize that a sizable quantity of gold is leaving the market.

Indeed, about 48.9 million metric tons of electronic waste was produced worldwide in 2013, a figure that will rise to 65.4 million tons a year by the year 2017, according the United Nations’ World E-Waste Map, which follows such things.

This is important because experts (such as the U.S. Geological Survey) and industry pundits have been decrying in recent years that the world is running out of gold, with recoverable gold resources to be fully depleted in about 20 years. Gold production gives the impression of having peaked in 2000, with new gold production declining by about 1 million ounces each year.

The World Gold Council (WGC) says that, at the end of 2012, 174,100 metric tons of gold existed above ground, which would form a cube about 65.6 feet on a side. According to Galmarley.com, all the gold ever mined is worth $1.8 trillion and all gold yet to be mined is worth about 40 percent of that, or $0.7 trillion — a paltry sum compared to the U.S. Federal Debt of over $17.7 trillion.

According to Geology.com, about 78 percent of the gold consumed each year is used in jewelry fabrication. Jewelry industry demand alone exceeds Western mine production. This is followed by industrial and other applications (electronics, aerospace, medicine, dentistry), governments and central banks, and private investors.

Recycling currently accounts for about one-third of the total supply of gold. Until recent years, recovering gold from the recycling of electronics wasn’t considered that viable a deal. However, in 1960 a ton of gold ore yielded 2.86 grams of gold, in 2000 one ton yielded 1.37 grams of gold, and most of the few new gold ore discoveries are yielding less than one gram per ton of ore.

Now, as the Environmental Protection Agency notes on its website, “One metric ton of circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold and 30 to 40 times the amount of copper mined from one metric ton of ore in the U.S.”

Startups have appeared to “upcycle” (recover gold and other valuable materials) from e-waste, such as BlueOak Resources, of Burlingame, California, founded by Priv Bradoo and Bryce Goodman.

Moreover, scientists have found that carbon nanotubes, a form of graphene, conduct electricity with practically no resistance. Recently, an international team of scientists made ribbons of graphene in which electrons move freely, as reported in the Feb. 6, 2014 issue of the journal Nature.

The scientists say they can make such ribbons “easily and in large quantities,” so perhaps the electronics industry doesn’t have to worry about the world running out of gold after all.

Richard Grigonis is an internationally known technology editor and writer. He was executive editor of Technology Management Corporation’s IP Communications Group of magazines from 2006 to 2009. The author of five books on computers and telecom, including the highly influential Computer Telephony Encyclopedia (2000), he was the chief technical editor of Harry Newton's Computer Telephony magazine (later retitled Communications Convergence after its acquisition by Miller Freeman/CMP Media) from its first year of operation in 1994 until 2003. Read more reports from Richard Grigonis — Click Here Now.

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