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Gold Produced from Toxic Waste

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Photo: Some rights reserved by digitalmoneyworld via Flickr

You’ve heard of diamonds being manufactured from tequila; how about gold from toxic waste?

Incredible as it sounds, this is just what an article from Mother Nature Network reported recently. According to the article, scientists from Michigan State University have come up with a way to produce gold from a liquid toxic waste.

Kazem Kashefi, an assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at MSU together with associate professor Adam Brown of electronic art and intermedia worked on how to produce solid gold from liquid toxic waste using bacteria. Their method involves use of the bacteria Cupriavidus metallidurans, an extremophile organism that is able to survive and thrive in extreme environment or conditions on the planet. The bacteria is exposed to high concentrations of gold chloride, a known neurotoxin to humans. Gold chloride has been documented to cause peripheral neuropathy or damage to the peripheral nerves.

Discovered to be 25 times more resistant to the gold-based toxic chemical than initially thought, Cupriavidus metallidurans is placed inside a customized glass bioreactor and forced to metabolize high concentrations of gold chloride. It takes about a week of digestion before nuggets of solid, 99.99% 24 karat gold begin to appear in the bioreactor.

While allusions to alchemy are inevitable, the method seems to be more of a bio-assisted technology than neo alchemy. One of alchemy’s goals in a historical sense is the transmutation of base and common metals into noble ones like pure gold (also known as chrysopoeia). The method uses a gold based chemical in the first place, which as this video courtesy of Slate points out, is as rare as the noble metal itself.

Moreover, bio-assisted technology consists of using organisms to do a task. In this case Cupriavidus metallidurans’ task is to metabolize the chemical in order to leave the gold nuggets behind. Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Guild, likens bio-assisted technology to domestication. Incidentally, her guild promotes learning from nature aside from learning about it and mimicking it aside from using it, which bio-assisted technology is all about. If science could somehow learn how Cupriavidus metallidurans processes the toxic waste and learn from the blueprint, it would not need the microorganisms to do a lot of work for a little amount of output. Such a blueprint might make industries take a second look at how to acquire metals and minerals without destroying natural ecosystems in the process.

While professors Kashefi and Brown’s method is one of the more ingenious and intriguing ways to deal with a form of toxic waste, it presents several difficulties to be considered as a strong possibility in replacing or supplementing traditional precious metals and substances extraction (mining, etc.). The two scientists themselves have acknowledged that the method is not quite cost-effective to be profitable, as gold chloride is expensive to manufacture in a lab.

Professors Kashefi and Brown’s work was recently featured as an art exhibit named “The Great Work of the Metal Lover” and given an Honorary Mention in Austria’s Prix Ars Electronica 2012. See Professor Brown’s documentary of the “The Great Work of the Metal Lover” at Vimeo.

Estel M.
About Estel M. (348 Posts)

Estel Grace Masangkay is a creative writer who enjoys outdoor trips and nature activities. She is passionate about sustainability and environment conservation. Follow Me @Em23me.


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