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Where Does All Earth’s Gold Come From?

Gold is a chemical element with the symbol Au (from Latin: aurum) and atomic number 79, making it one of the higher atomic number elements that occur naturally. In a pure form, it is a bright, slightly reddish yellow, dense, soft, malleable, and ductile metal.

Chemically, gold is a transition metal and a group 11 element. It is one of the least reactive chemical elements and is solid under standard conditions.

Gold often occurs in free elemental (native) form, as nuggets or grains, in rocks, in veins, and in alluvial deposits. It occurs in a solid solution series with the native element silver (as electrum) and also naturally alloyed with copper and palladium. Less commonly, it occurs in minerals as gold compounds, often with tellurium (gold tellurides).

Gold is resistant to most acids, though it does dissolve in aqua regia, a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, which forms a soluble tetrachloroaurate anion.

Gold is insoluble in nitric acid, which dissolves silver and base metals, a property that has long been used to refine gold and to confirm the presence of gold in metallic objects, giving rise to the term acid test.

Gold also dissolves in alkaline solutions of cyanide, which are used in mining and electroplating. Gold dissolves in mercury, forming amalgam alloys, but this is not a chemical reaction.

Ultra high precision analyses of some of the oldest rock samples on Earth by researchers at the University of Bristol provides clear evidence that the planet’s accessible reserves of precious metals are the result of a bombardment of meteorites more than 200 million years
The research is published in Nature.

During the formation of Earth, molten iron sank to its centre to make the core. This took with it the vast majority of the planet’s precious metals — such as gold and platinum. In fact, there are enough precious metals in the core to cover the entire surface of Earth with a four-metre thick layer.

The removal of gold to the core should leave the outer portion of Earth bereft of bling. However, precious metals are tens to thousands of times more abundant in Earth’s silicate mantle than anticipated. It has previously been argued that this serendipitous over-abundance results from a cataclysmic meteorite shower that hit Earth after the core formed. The full load of meteorite gold was thus added to the mantle alone and not lost to the deep interior.

To test this theory, Dr Matthias Willbold and Professor Tim Elliott of the Bristol Isotope Group in the School of Earth Sciences analysed rocks from Greenland that are nearly four billion years old, collected by Professor Stephen Moorbath of the University of Oxford. These ancient rocks provide a unique window into the composition of our planet shortly after the formation of the core but before the proposed meteorite bombardment.

The researchers determined the tungsten isotopic composition of these rocks. Tungsten (W) is a very rare element (one gram of rock contains only about one ten-millionth of a gram of tungsten) and, like gold and other precious elements, it should have entered the core when it formed. Like most elements, tungsten is composed of several isotopes, atoms with the same chemical characteristics but slightly different masses. Isotopes provide robust fingerprints of the origin of material and the addition of meteorites to Earth would leave a diagnostic mark on its W isotope composition.

Dr Willbold observed a 15 parts per million decrease in the relative abundance of the isotope 182W between the Greenland and modern day rocks. This small but significant change is in excellent agreement with that required to explain the excess of accessible gold on Earth as the fortunate by-product of meteorite bombardment.

Dr Willbold said: “Extracting tungsten from the rock samples and analysing its isotopic composition to the precision required was extremely demanding given the small amount of tungsten available in rocks. In fact, we are the first laboratory world-wide that has successfully made such high-quality measurements.”

The impacting meteorites were stirred into Earth’s mantle by gigantic convection processes. A tantalising target for future work is to study how long this process took. Subsequently, geological processes formed the continents and concentrated the precious metals (and tungsten) in ore deposits which are mined today.

Dr Willbold continued: “Our work shows that most of the precious metals on which our economies and many key industrial processes are based have been added to our planet by lucky coincidence when the Earth was hit by about 20 billion billion tonnes of asteroidal material.”

This research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).

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