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People have been fascinated by the idea of converting cheaper metals into gold (“transmutation”) for a very long time. Unfortunately for the alchemists who hoped to perform miracles and gather riches, their attempts never succeeded.
Precious metals are formed naturally, and their quantities are finite, at least on Earth. How did they come about, though? What might the future hold?
Where Do Precious Metals Come From?
You’d have to be an expert geologist, astrophysicist, or chemist to truly understand where our rare and valuable metals originated. If the terms “supernova nucleosynthesis” and “cosmic ray spallation” are unfamiliar to you, it’s probably best to keep things simple. (Good, because we’re not experts on these complex processes, either!)
Essentially, heavy metals like gold, silver, and members of the platinum group (including palladium, rhodium, and iridium) were born during complex “space events.” Supernova nucleosynthesis is, for example, a process in which extreme energy and pressure cause nuclear reactions that lead to the formation of precious metals.
Supernovae explode, during which these particles are dispersed to “galaxies far, far away,” where they may float around in space and become part of larger structures before becoming embedded in new planets. Concretely, scientists now believe that the precious metals found on Earth were brought here through meteorite showers about 200 million years after the Earth was initially formed.
Geological processes continued during this early phase in its life, and most precious metals found their way to the planet’s (largely iron-based) core. Unfortunately, that means immense quantities of precious metals are likely forever just beyond reach. On the upside, the Earth’s other layers still contain massive amounts of gold, silver, platinum, palladium, and other precious metals.
Where Are Precious Metals Mined?
Gold is primarily obtained from dedicated mining operations. It can be found in quartz veins and placer deposits, areas where precious metals build up over time (influenced by the flow of water), and where they are particularly dense.
Silver can be found in numerous different places, including in silver veins and as part of other ores. While dedicated mining operations are an important source, silver is also obtained as a byproduct of mining other metals.
Members of the platinum group, which besides platinum also includes palladium, rhodium, and iridium, are typically mined from platinum group deposits. These precious metals hide in layered intrusions (which often appear as slabs with vertical layers) and placer deposits. Platinum deposits are often formed through seismic activity and as a result of the cooling of lava.
Precious metal veins are often the result of so-called hydrothermal processes, which bring hot water with a high mineral content closer to the planet’s surface, forming dense clusters. They can also result from magma movement.
Geological processes could, in the future, bring more precious metals closer to the Earth’s surface. However, it is crucial to recognize the finite nature of the metals we value most. Their rarity and the challenge of mining them explain what makes them so cherished.
What Is the Future of the Precious Metals Market?
Speculating about the future is always fun.
If you’re a sci-fi lover at heart, you may find the idea that people will go into space to mine gold, silver, platinum, and palladium (not to mention diamonds!) in the future tantalizing. This idea isn’t too far from morphing from science fiction to scientific reality. Scientists and investors are actively fascinated by the concepts of asteroid mining and mining operations on the moon, although we’ll all have to wait and see if and when space mining will take off.
Modern scientists have also outdone ancient alchemists by successfully creating precious metals through complex experiments with electrically-charged argon gas and ionized particles moving at extreme speed. They have managed to create a metal chemically almost identical to gold from copper.
The catch? The particles were a fraction of the size of a gold atom. As such, this fascinating scientific process doesn’t currently have any commercial potential — mining gold is infinitely cheaper than creating it from copper.
Recovering the precious metals currently in circulation from waste products currently holds much more promise. The vast amounts of electronic waste produced every year and the jewelry we discard contain significant quantities of metals, including gold, silver, platinum, and palladium.
More sophisticated recycling systems can reduce the need for new mining operations and ensure we’re not letting precious metals go to waste.
Meanwhile, mining operations continue at full speed. China, Australia, Russia, the US, and Canada are among the largest gold producers. There’s some overlap with silver mining there, as the largest silver mining operations are based in Mexico, Peru, China, and Australia. Precious metals in the platinum family are mainly mined in South Africa, Russia, and Zimbabwe.
As mining operations become more technologically advanced, it may become possible to reach previously unexplored areas.
No matter what happens next, one thing is certain. The precious metals market never remains static, and new innovations are bound to lead to exciting changes. Nothing may rival the sheer force of a supernova, but we’ll always find ways to get our hands on precious metals.