On the Fifth Day of Christmas – winning back gold

Gold is a precious metal that truly stands the test of time. It (almost) never ages, and it is remarkably easy to recycle.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me five gold rings…

Gold is one of our most treasured metals, and when you realise how rare it is, you’ll understand why. There is so little gold in the world, that you could melt it all down and form a cube just about big enough to fit under the Eiffel Tower, or so we’re told.

All those coins, items of jewellery, bars of bullion locked in vaults – it all adds up. This yellow metal has an uncanny ability to outlive everyone and everything, but what can we learn from reusing it?

Old gold, new tricks

With an atomic number of 79, denoting 79 protons in the nucleus of each atom, gold is one of the best metals to withstand corrosion. Pure gold doesn’t react with oxygen, meaning it doesn’t tarnish or rust. However, pure gold is also very soft and malleable, so manufacturers often mix it with other metals to make it harder.

As a result, these gold alloys can often end up tarnishing over time, but the gold atoms still outlast anything they are paired up with. Gold has a melting temperature of 1,064 degrees celsius, and can be melted down from one shape into another almost seamlessly.

As much as 75 per cent of the world’s gold supply is estimated to come from mining, according to the World Gold Council. As is often the case, demand outstrips supply, so when fresh sources are lacking, the remaining shortfall is often made up through recycled gold being extracted from old jewellery or technology, before being melted down and recast into something new.

A ringing endorsement from Japan

Sadly, Japan was unable to host the 32nd Olympiad in Tokyo this year, as expected, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Next year, spectators may notice something interesting about the gold medals used to award athletes.

You may not know it, but smartphones are actually a phenomenally good source of gold for recycling. That’s because gold is an incredible conductor, making it a favourite component in various devices. Over in Japan, the Tokyo 2020 Project was unveiled back in 2017. Over two years, approximately 6.21 million used smartphones were collected, amongst 78,985 tonnes of technological waste.

The Project managed to extract 32kg of gold, over 3,500kg of silver and 2,200kg of bronze, which it used to help forge the medals for the Tokyo Olympic Games, due to be awarded when the rescheduled games are held in the summer of 2021. It just goes to show how much of a fortune we’re all carrying around in our pockets, and the incredible things we can do when we give recycling a go.

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