To learn more about how and why gold is used in sectors like electronics, medicine and clean technology, Beyond Borders reached out to Trevor Keel. Keel is the former Head of Technology at the World Gold Council, where he was responsible for all technology and healthcare-related market development activities. Before joining the World Gold Council, he was a principal scientist at GlaxoSmithKline. He is co-founder of Agility Health Tech, a consulting-services company specializing in strategy and communications in the technology and healthcare sectors, and he continues to advise the World Gold Council on advanced technological applications for gold. He is a chartered chemist, and holds a doctorate in nanoscience as well as a degree in chemistry and a Masters in Management from University College London.
Beyond Borders: Gold is best known for its use in jewelry and as an investment tool, but it is also an important component in many products that people use every day, particularly consumer electronics devices. Could you explain why gold is so critical in this area?
Trevor Keel: There are really three reasons why gold is used in electronics. The first is that gold conducts electricity very well, which is obviously very important. It's not the best conductor, but that doesn't matter much when you consider the second reason, which is that gold doesn't corrode. Copper and silver conduct electricity better than gold, and are also cheaper, but both materials corrode and are therefore more likely to fail. You can't have product failure, particularly in high-end applications like car brakes. When you press your brake pedal down, the car's electronics system needs to work, so anti-corrosion is very important.
The third reason gold is so useful relates to its physical properties. Gold can be stretched into incredibly thin wires or plated very thinly onto different surfaces to be used as coating. When you insert a memory card into a device, you may notice that one side of the card is gold colored; that is in fact gold. Gold can also be stretched into thin bonding wires that allow computer chips to communicate with each other. These wires are just microns thick, sometimes, which means you can create many kilometers of wire from a single ounce of gold. That single ounce can make a huge quantity of wire that goes into thousands of components, making it cost effective and feasible.
How much gold is used annually in this way?
We generally say about 250 to 300 tons of gold every year, with the electronics market accounting for the bulk of that, so it's quite significant and it's often overlooked. The reason is that the gold is a hidden element in these innovative breakthroughs in science and technology. People can't see it, so they don't realize it's there.
Is gold used in an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, and what other everyday products is it found in?
You'll find gold in all cellphones. You'll also find it in laptop and desktop computers, as well as airplanes and cars; really, anything that contains a high-end piece of electronics.
Airplanes contain hundreds of kilometers of wiring, and some of that will be bonding wire that contains gold. Bonding wire is also used in airbags in cars because of its reliability. That is a word I will come back to over and over again. Manufacturers recognize there is a cost attached to it, but they also understand that gold is often the best material for the job.
How critical is gold to the functionality of these products?
It is absolutely essential. Without the gold bonding wire and coating, these electrical systems wouldn't work. Over time, as the price of gold has increased, manufacturers have engaged in a lot of research and development to improve the reliability of silver- and copper-based components. But, here is that word again, if you want the best and most reliable material, that material is gold, and therefore there will always be a use for gold in the electronics industry.
How is gold used in more niche applications, such as NASA's James Webb Space Telescope?
The Webb Telescope is a remarkable piece of technology that will replace the Hubble telescope. It includes 18 hexagon-shaped mirrors made of beryllium that are coated in a thin layer of pure gold, which improves the mirrors' reflection of infrared light. It can basically take in light from galaxies millions of light years away and help NASA researchers observe the universe. These same reflective properties make gold a valuable coating material for various structures here on earth. In Toronto, the 14,000 windows on the Royal Bank Plaza Tower are coated in 70 kilograms of pure gold. The gold plating reflects heat radiation, helping keep buildings cool in summer and warm in winter.
We're hearing more about new technological uses of gold, particularly in the area of nanotechnology. What are some of these new uses?
Nanotechnology and gold are often mentioned hand-in-hand because it's relatively easy to make gold nanoparticles — tiny atoms of gold stuck together by chemical means. These nanoparticles are about a billionth of a meter in diameter, so they're absolutely miniscule, and they don't use much gold, making them very affordable.
Gold nanoparticles are now widely used in the medical field as a diagnostic tool. A good example of this is malaria test kits. The technology is very simple. If the test is positive, you get two red lines. If it's negative, you get one red line. Those red lines consist of gold nanoparticles treated with various chemical agents that can detect if an individual is infected with malaria. There are similar test kits for HIV/AIDS, which only cost about 50 cents each. They save thousands of lives every year in remote locations where people often don't have access to hospitals or doctors. Last year, nearly 333 million malaria tests that contained gold were used around the world.
Do gold nanoparticles have other uses apart from medical applications?
Gold nanoparticles can be used with platinum and palladium in catalytic converters in cars to reduce air pollution. The nanoparticles stick to the inside of the catalytic converter and, as a car engine runs, pollutants come into contact with the nanoparticles and undergo a chemical reaction to form less harmful by-products like carbon dioxide and water. It's a really good example of an environmentally positive use for gold.
What other novel uses of gold are on the horizon?
Because of their ability to absorb light, the use of gold nanoparticles in the solar energy field is a promising area, though it is still in the early stages. Gold can essentially be sprinkled into certain types of photovoltaic solar cells and help increase the amount of sunlight that can be converted into electricity. Various universities around the world are working on this. For example, researchers at UCLA found that incorporating gold nanoparticles into carbon-based solar cells can increase the power conversion rate by as much as 20 percent.