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Gold opened Alaska; but what is it good for?


November 18, 2005

While I was driving the Steese Highway recently, large piles of boulders lining the road--the tailings of a gold dredge that had munched its way through the area years before--inspired a debate on gold.

One passenger spoke of what an absurdity it is that we humans place such a high value upon gold. "If jewelry isn't your thing, what good is gold?" he asked. "You can't eat it. If a space alien were to land here and ask why gold is so valuable, I don't know what I'd tell him." I looked around the car. Except for the wedding rings of my two companions, I saw no gold. Back at home, I once again failed to see any gold.

jpg gold

Credit: U.S. House Resources Committee

What good is gold?

My search for an answer led me to the Minerals Yearbook, published by the U.S. Department of the Interior. In the yearbook, Bureau of Mines geologist John Lucas explains that gold is in almost every office and home. Touch-tone phones, for example, have up to 33 electrical contact points made of gold. Take the gold out of the computer I'm now tapping this column into, and the computer won't work.

Low voltages and currents in modern electronic circuitry require connectors and switch contacts that conduct electricity reliably and consistently. Gold doesn't corrode and conducts electricity better than any metal other than silver and copper. Gold also isn't affected by magnetic fields.

But don't go tearing old phones apart expecting a bonanza. One of the wonderful properties of gold is that it is so soft and malleable that it retains its conductive properties even when spread thin enough to barely cover the surface it's coating. Gold is so elastic that one troy ounce can be hammered into a sheet of gold leaf that covers 250 square feet. That same troy ounce of gold can be pulled into a 50-mile long strand of wire.

Gold is used in electronic equipment because it's dependable in extremes of heat and humidity. In the Hubble Space Telescope, for example, gold was used for contacts and connectors that will long outlive the telescope's usefulness. Astronaut's visors are coated with gold thin enough to see through because gold is a great reflector of the sun's heat and light rays. Glass used for house and office windows sometimes contains a layer of gold, and gold-coated mirrors are used by military aircraft to confuse heat-seeking missiles.

Fine powdered gold even makes one of the world's finest lubricants. Unlike oil, gold isn't affected by chemical breakdown and evaporation. Gold, held in bar form in such places as Fort Knox, Kentucky, was once used to back up the paper money of many countries. But the "gold standard" became meaningless after World War I, when the U.S. and other countries began printing more and more bills. The value of the paper currency soon exceeded the value of the country's gold reserves. President Franklin D. Roosevelt removed the United States from the gold standard in 1934.

One of the densest metals, gold is 19.3 times heavier than water by volume. A cubic foot of gold, which would fit easily into a plastic milk crate, weighs more than 1,200 pounds. A cubic inch weighs nearly a pound.

Despite all its practical properties, only about 20 percent of gold mined today is used for circuitry, window-coating, and other non-jewelry purposes. The major reason we value gold so much is because there isn't much of it on the planet. According to the Bureau of Mines, if all the gold ever extracted on the planet were gathered tomorrow and molded into a square cube, that cube would be just 60 feet high and 60 feet wide. That cube would weigh about 264 million pounds. And what good would a house-sized cube of gold be, you ask? At least no one would be able to walk off with it.


This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. This is a reprint of an article published in November 1996. Ned Rozell [] is a science writer at the institute.

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Ketchikan, Alaska