The future is golden

By Trevor Keel, Consultant, World Gold Council

Gold is critical to many of the technologies we all rely on today, but what might the future hold for this unique metal?

Throughout the ages, gold’s unrivalled role as a store, measure, and symbol of value and meaning has made it a constant in our society. It powered the world’s economies as the international currency for centuries, while central banks are still turning to gold reserves for economic stability. It remains firmly rooted in cultures around the world, celebrated in life’s most important moments.

Gold’s unique properties are also powering everyday life in ways not visible to most. Gold is, in fact, all‑pervasive, quietly and efficiently enabling many of the devices we take for granted in our increasingly electrified world. It is also at the heart of so many different aspects of research and development that it can be found in countless laboratories around the world.

At the root of gold’s value to technological developments has been its inertness – it doesn’t tarnish or corrode. This means that it is essentially unreactive, and won’t degrade over time in the same way that most other metals do. This property drove what might be considered as its first industrial application in dentistry, which goes back thousands of years. Even early glass artisans used tiny quantities of gold to colour glass, which still adorns religious buildings all over the world.

In addition to being inert, gold is also an excellent conductor of electricity. The combination of these two properties has seen it become a vital material in the electronics industry, with a long history of being at the forefront of technological advancement. It’s been applied to printed circuit boards since their inception in the 1920s, and was at the heart of the development of the early transistors at Bell Labs just after World War II. Gold has since proliferated through our device-driven economy.

Today, the metal is found in almost all high-end electronic devices. The computer or smartphone you’re likely to be reading this article on will contain gold. The vehicle you drove today contains gold.

While the overall quantity of gold being used today is around the same as it was 20 years ago, the number of devices using gold is exponentially higher. Last year, just over 250 tonnes of gold went into the electronics industry, largely into thin connecting wires and as a plated coating. That’s around six per cent of total global gold demand.

Drivers for gold technology

Fluctuations in gold’s technology demand are driven by a variety of factors, but the three critical considerations are the prevailing macro-economic conditions influencing end-user purchasing for consumer electronics; ongoing electrification in society; and 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.

Thrifting has undeniably played an important role with respect to demand over the past two decades. This is the process of removing relatively costly materials from devices by limiting the quantities used per unit. Considerable quantities of gold were engineered out of electronic devices in the early to mid 2010s, driven by rapid gold price rises and technological advancements, which saw thinner wires and alternative plating techniques introduced. Despite this, rates of thrifting often fall rapidly as technical limits are reached, and wires can only be so thin before they become impracticable, for example, potentially risking reliability. In the case of high-end consumer electronic devices or safety-critical systems in a vehicle, these types of risk are unacceptable. So, I believe that while thrifting will continue to be a consideration moving forward, societies’ demand for reliable and increasingly complex devices will endure and keep gold at the forefront of the electronics industry.

New solutions to complicated problems

The driver for unlocking many of these new uses of gold is nanotechnology, where tiny quantities of materials are being used to develop new applications in areas such as clean energy and health care.

Gold in its bulk form is inert – 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, where gold is a critical component of lateral flow assays (LFAs). If you, like me, spent much of 2020 and 2021 testing yourself (using LFAs) for COVID-19, then you have been looking directly at gold probably without realising it.

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 crucial medical tools, offering quick, accurate and cost-effective diagnostics to people all over the world, and gold is a critical component within them.

The World Gold Council plays an active role in exploring the application of gold in the medical sphere. We have recently supported research at the University of Toronto focused on developing new ways of treating brain tumours using gold nanoparticles as carriers for potentially lifesaving drugs.

Gold’s role in decarbonisation

Gold nanoparticles have also been shown to be a highly effective catalyst in the transformation of carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide, which has huge potential in the field of climate change if it can be developed at scale.

The World Gold Council is also 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.

The potential outcome is the possibility of taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turning that into carbon monoxide, which can be turned into fuels.

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 are using small quantities of gold to bolster the reactivity of thin film catalysts.

As societies’ needs evolve, so does gold

Gold will always play a critical role in human society, but this is likely to evolve as we continue to search for solutions to complicated problems. We believe gold’s technological applications will grow as research and development matures, and it is in these new uses that the most precious of metals may make its greatest contribution to humanity. 

To learn more about some of these fascinating advancements, visit the World Gold Council’s Golden Thread website at https://thegoldenthread.gold.org/season-one/the-next-frontier.

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