Fool’s gold (pyrite) had earned its name long ago due to its superficial resemblance to gold. Scrutiny reveals fool’s gold to be just that: gold for fools. Research today, however, continues to prove that we may be wrong. It has been hypothesized, and shown time again, that there is indeed gold in pyrite. Until recently, it was thought to appear in neglibible amounts. Although this is still true to an extent, pyrite may have more “invisible” gold than previously thought and more of it is attainable than ever. For the past 30 years, gold discovery has declined gradually. Within the last few years, no significant gold sources have been discovered. With diminishing extant sources and a lack of new discoveries, the demand to find a method to obtain gold has never been higher.
It is necessary to understand how gold is mined and extracted because it explains why “fool’s gold” has ironically become an increasing source of real gold.
Currently, there are multiple methods to obtain gold, from mining with pick and machinery to panning. One image that might come to mind is a hardhat wearing man deep in a mine hauling pure gold ore out of the mine, but this is only a piece of the greater story. In truth, a lot of gold doesn’t come from gold mines. Tons of ore are extracted from copper mines. When gold is mined from rock and mineral, it often appears with other minerals. In short, it doesn’t always appear as a lump of solid, pure, glittering gold in a dark cave or mine shaft. Gold often appears, though not always, in quartz veins. Quartzite, along with other minerals, will grow with the gold.
Because gold grows with other minerals in its ore, it cannot be immediately used for consumption. Instead, it must be extracted, but this process is both dangerous and environmentally detrimental. The process involves cyanide, the deadly toxin. Cyanide is highly efficient at extracting ore and is relatively cheap, but its use results in pollutants.
Cyanide wasn’t the first choice for extracting ore through a leaching process. Mercury, another toxic element, was used before the invention of the cyanide process. Today, mercury is scarcely used, although developing countries and artisanal miners still use it.
Both have caused significant damage to the environment. So what are the alternatives?
There are a couple of methods worth mentioning, and pyrite is stealing gold’s spotlight despite centuries of being known as fool’s gold.
Pyrite had been known to contain gold before, but only in trace amounts. This theory was hypothesized as far back as the mid-18th century. As geology and mineralogy became more rigorous and studied, it became increasingly apparent that the gold in pyrite hid in more ways than one. The most recent study has shown that trace amounts are practically invisible. The gold hidden in pyrite is on the “nanoscale” and only exists in defects. The worse the flaws, the more gold is present in the crystal.
It is possible to extract tiny gold pieces from pyrite using selective leaching. It is more eco-friendly than current industry practice. An emerging method for extracting gold involves leaching identical to the cyanide process but uses starch. The method is supposed to be more efficient than cyanide, an already tough competitor.
With fewer discoveries, fear of “peak gold” (when we have hit the most gold production possible at a given point in time, after which it is continual decline), and ecological concerns growing due to climate change, pyrite just may be the game changer the gold industry has been waiting for.
“A Decade of Underperformance for Gold Discoveries.” S&P Global Market Intelligence, 4 June 2020, www.spglobal.com/marketintelligence/en/news-insights/blog/a-decade-of-underperformance-for-gold-discoveries.
“‘Fool’s Gold’ Not so Foolish after All.” ScienceDaily, 25 June 2021, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/06/210625100529.htm.
Fougerouse, Denis, et al. “A New Kind of Invisible Gold in Pyrite Hosted in Deformation-Related.” Geology, 2021. Crossref, doi:10.1130/g49028.1.
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Henckel, Johann Friedrich. Pyritologia: Or, A History of the Pyrites, the Principal Body of the Mineral Kingdom .... United Kingdom, A. Millar, 1757.
Hustrulid, William, and Richard Bullock. Underground Mining Methods: Engineering Fundamentals and International Case Studies. Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration, 2001.
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Pappas, Stephanie. “Fool’s Gold Not Completely Worthless. There’s Real Gold Inside.” Livescience.Com, 29 June 2021, www.livescience.com/pyrite-real-gold.html.
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Steadman, Ian. “‘Green’ Gold Extraction Method Replaces Cyanide with Starch.” WIRED UK, 20 May 2013, www.wired.co.uk/article/cornstarch-cyanide-gold.
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