Scientists invent method to extract gold from liquid waste

The next gold rush might take place in our sewers.

  • Even though we think of it as exceedingly rare, gold can be found all around us.
  • The trouble is, most of the gold is hard to get at; its too diluted in our waste or ocean waters to effectively extract.
  • This new technique quickly, easily, and reliably extracts gold from most liquids.

Even though the thought of gold calls to mind incredible wealth hidden underground or horded away in Fort Knox, you can actually find the stuff all over the place. there's gold in nearly every kind of consumer electronic, gold in our sewage, gold in the cracks of New York City sidewalks, and even trace amounts in our brains. The trouble isn't that gold is rare, per se, it's just hard to get to.

In human history, we've mined about 190,000 tons of gold out of the ground. If you want to visualize that amount, it would fit in a box about 20 m on each side; not all that much in the grand scheme of things. We've been able to get at this because it was stored in a way that's relatively easy for us to access. It was buried in the Earth, so we just had to dig it up. In contrast, we've estimated that there's about 20 million tons of gold in the ocean—it's just distributed throughout the seas, making it difficult to refine and extract.

In the past, we didn't use gold for much of anything besides as a method to store value, so the fact that most gold on Earth was inaccessible was more of a feature than a bug. But now, we're increasingly finding practical applications for the precious metal. It can be used in medicine to treat arthritis or for dentistry; it's an excellent conductor, so it can be used in electronics and communication technology; and it reflects infrared radiation, so we use it on our spacecraft and spacesuits. Suddenly, getting at those 20 million tons of gold in the ocean and elsewhere on Earth has become more about technological and societal progress than about accumulating wealth.

New research from the Journal of the American Chemical Society has uncovered one of the most effective methods to date to extract gold from liquids. That includes electronic waste, sewage, ocean water, waste water—almost any liquid where we might find gold. Just to highlight how potentially useful this is, sewage from Switzerland alone is estimated to carry away 1.8 million dollars' worth of gold every year.

Making a sponge for gold

Sun et al. 2018

The object to the left shows the basic framework, a lattice of iron ion clusters connected by organic molecules. On this structure, a polymer that helps catch gold is coated, represented by the purple dots.

The method consists of a metal-organic framework—essentially, clusters metal ions connected by an organic "skeleton." In this case, the framework consists of iron ions connected by an organic compound called 1,3,5-benzenetricarboxylate. The researchers then coated this structure in a polymer with an even more difficult-to-pronounce name (for the curious, it's poly-para-phenylenediamine, or PpDA), which helps the framework catch stray molecules of gold.

Essentially, the framework and polymer work as a very granular sponge, only this sponge doesn't hold soap or water; instead, it holds gold.

Other researchers have built structures like this one before, but the new framework works exceptionally well. For every gram of this gold-seeking sponge submerged in a liquid, it can hold up to a gram of gold. What's more, it can catch 99% of the gold in a given solution in as little as two minutes.

Once the framework's sucked up the gold, it can easily be destroyed to retrieve the gold captured inside. The figure below shows how this works. After it's been suspended in a gold-containing solution, the framework is dissolved in hydrochloric acid. After some time, all that's left is 23.9 K gold, which is the highest purity of gold reclaimed from similar projects.

Sun et al. 2018

On the left, a sample of liquid is shown with the new material suspended inside. After the material is dissolved in acid, 23.9 K gold particles are leftover. On the right side, the gold particles are shown under a microscope.

The researchers tested the method out in a few different real-world cases. One of the most useful applications for a method like this is in reclaiming gold from electronic waste. It can take as much as a ton of gold ore to build just 40 smartphones, so getting the gold out of electronic waste would be extremely practical.

The researchers physically removed the metal from a CPU and treated it with some chemicals to form a solution. In the figure below, you can see that this produced a blue solution. So far, this technique is nothing new. The trouble is that a CPU also contains copper and nickel as well as gold, all of which is mixed up in this solution. So, the trick is how to get the really valuable metal out of the mixture. Using the new method, the researchers managed to get 95% of the gold out of the solution.

Sun et al. 2018

The top-left image shows a regular CPU. To its right, we can see the various elements that comprise the CPU (copper, nickel, and gold). In the bottom-left corner, we can see the CPU after its material has been physically removed. The image to its right shows the material dissolved into a blue solution and a graph showing how much of each material the new method recovered from the solution.

They found similar results with different liquids, too. The new framework captured 99% of gold from Swiss sewage (which, if you'll recall, allegedly washes away $1.8 million worth of gold every year). The researchers also tried extracting gold from seawater, and, once again, they were able to extract 99% of gold from their sample. These last two examples are especially promising; sewage and seawater contain a huge variety of different compounds that could interfere with any kind of filtering system.

We're still a long way off from, say, filtering the oceans for the precious metals they contain. But as we continue to use up the easily accessible resources buried in the Earth, exploring new techniques like this will be important if we want to continue to use smartphones, explore space, and collectively advance as a society.

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A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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