Gold mining is one of the oldest and most lucrative industries in the world. Its product is used in a variety of industries and it’s essential for some of them. Gold is also one of the oldest ways to store value and it’s still used as such.
It’s useful for those who are taking part in the gold trade to know more about the mining part of the industry as well. That’s often overlooked because it’s a long path between mining gold and buying or selling a piece of jewelry.
Where is gold found?
Gold is found as a primal and pure metal. There are also minerals that are gold-bearing: such as sylvanite and calaverite. Gold can be found in many countries across the world but not in large quantities. The biggest reserves of gold can be found in South Africa, the USA (Nevada, Alaska), Russia, Australia, and Canada.
There is evidence that it was used as value storage at least 4500 years ago. Pure gold is soft and therefore needs to be combined with another metal in order to make it useable for making jewelry or use in industry.
What is gold used for?
There’s a variety of uses for gold, some of which are very old and some of which are quite new and the result of the modern technology that we’ve developed. The most common and oldest use of gold throughout history is as representative of value. Coins and bullions have been used as a currency in most cultures.
Gold is also used for making jewelry which is also a millennia-old tradition that exists in almost every culture.
It’s a good conductor of electricity which makes it a useful metal for edge connectors and memory chips. Gold is used for dental work to make crowns and fillings. It’s also a diagnostic tool when it’s mixed with a radioactive solution.
How is gold mined?
There are four different ways to mine gold. Each of these categories has its unique methods and is used for extracting gold from different surrounding materials.
1. Placer mining
In placer mining gold is retrieved by metal detecting, panning, cradling, sluicing, and dredging. With this method gravity and water are used to separate gold from the materials that surround it.
This is the most common method of mining gold for amateurs and for centuries it was the only method being used until technological developments were put in place.
2. Hard rock mining
Hard rock mining is the process open pit and underground tunnels to retrieve gold from rocks. That’s the most common way to find gold and that’s how most mines work.
The chances are that the gold you’re using was retrieved in this manner. This method is used in all countries that mine gold.
3. Byproduct mining
Byproduct mining is related to hard rock mining. The pit or tunnels that are used for hard rock mining are also used for byproduct mining. Gold is the secondary product of this process and that’s why it’s cold byproduct mining.
It’s what happens when you’re mining for copper or when you’re looking for sand or gravel. During this process, gold is discovered and when it’s separated from other materials in a separate process, it can be used just as the gold that was mined on purpose.
One of the biggest mines that use this method is the Grasberg mine in Papua, Indonesia. Even though gold isn’t its primary product, it produces more gold than most gold mines in the world.
4. Gold ore
Gold ore is the least used process these days because it yields the least amount of gold while having the most negative effects on the environment.
Gold ore is finely crushed rock or earth containing trace amounts of Gold which are extracted using a chemical process. The chemical used for this process is usually cyanide.
How much gold is left in the world?
It’s not easy to estimate how much gold is left in the world. We know that about 3000 tons of gold are mined a year. There are about 190.000 tons of gold left to be mined at this point, but that doesn’t count the gold that could have been mined with additional effort to expand the mines.
It’s also important to note that the amount of gold isn’t the only consideration to take into account. There’s also a matter of the cost of the mining and once that cost is larger than the value of the gold extracted, mining becomes uneconomical.
Some sources claim that there may be enough gold in the world to be mined until 2070, but that it wouldn’t be financially responsible to do so after 2050.
What happens next?
The end of gold mining won’t be the end of using gold in the world. It will require some changes in our attitude towards gold, but there’s enough of it, used electronics that we can recycle gold for years or decades after mines have been depleted.
We’ll need to make recycling more efficient and to use more of the gold that we have at our disposal, but for the most things, necessity is the mother of invention, meaning that the lack of gold will expedite these processes and technologies.
The price of gold
The price of gold is affected by market forces and that means that it sometimes goes up and sometimes it goes down. It changes much less than is the case with the value of foreign currencies or stocks. That’s why many people use gold to save the value and not be affected by the changes in the global economy.
That’s the price as of this writing and it’s been dropping a bit in the last few weeks.
Employment in mining
At this point, the mining industry employs about 600.000 people in the US alone. The industry has grown in size in the past five years at least when it comes to how many employees are working in the field. Salaries have gone down a bit in that time.
However, only a small percentage of that works in gold mining. At this point, it’s about 15.000 people working as gold miners in the US.
The salary in the field ranges from $50.000 to $70.000 depending on the job, area, and level of expertise.
Environmental impact of gold mining
Numerous environmental issues are caused by gold mining. It depends on the type of mining that’s being done but, there are cases where the gold mining industry has had a negative impact on the clean water source. It has displayed communities living close to the mining area and destroyed pristine environments.
Poisoned waters are the most common environmental problem especially when it comes to gold ore mining which is why that method is being phased out the first and replaced with other less damaging mining techniques.
Toxic waste that’s produced during the mining process often ends up in the water and that’s one of the things the gold mining industry is working on, as it tries to adapt to the green policies needed to remain sustainable.
There’s also an issue of solid waste. It’s a byproduct of digging and therefore most gold mines need to deal with it.
New tech coming to the industry
New technology was always a big part of the gold mining industry and that’s the case now as well. Almost every new tech finds its way to the gold mining field. It’s noticeable in the machinery that’s being used. Automation and self-driving vehicles are being used in gold mines and there are concerns about how that will affect employment.
Internet of things is a phenomenon that’s affecting other industries as well and that’s true with gold mining as well. It’s helping the employees use the data at their disposal better and to stay safer and healthier on the job.
There’s also a lot of efforts to use gold ore mining techniques but to make them less dangerous to the environment. It’s a process that includes both mining and chemical innovations but it’s going to be necessary as time goes by and there’s less gold to mine out there.
Gold can be found all over the world but there are a few large mines located in five countries that are dominating the industry. There are about 15.000 employees working in the industry in the US. Gold is usually mined in one of the four ways, that differ in terms of how the gold is separated from the materials around it.
The industry has a somewhat negative impact on the environment and new technologies are introduced to fix that where ever it’s possible. At the same time, the reserves of gold are being depleted and there’s a chance that mining gold won’t viable after 2070.