It may come as a surprise to many, but there are millions of tons of gold in seawater. Could a new gold rush be coming as technology advances? It turns out that getting gold from sea water is very difficult so it is not expected to happen anytime soon.
In 1872, British chemist Edward Sonstadt discovered that gold could be found in the ocean. Since then, many people have tried to find ways to retrieve this gold from the sea.
According to Atlas Obscura the first attempts to collect gold from seawater took place in the 1890s – and it was one big scam. It all started when English pastor Prescott Ford Jernegan claimed to have invented a new device that could sift gold from seawater using mercury and electricity.
He founded the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company with his childhood friend Charles Fischer. Jernegan gave investors an apparently successful demonstration of how the device works, with it attracting investors from all over and tens of millions of dollars in today’s currency were raised. They claimed in their prospectus that it was possible to collect enough gold from Long Island Sound to pay off the entire national debt of the United States.
The company opened a factory in Lubec, but the location was chosen in such a way that it was more difficult to supervise. In 1898, when investors wanted to visit the factory and check its processes more precisely, the whole scheme collapsed. Jernegan fled to Europe, and Fisher’s fate remains unknown to this day. It later turned out that Jernegan had added gold to the water in the facility himself, and nothing could be recovered from the seawater.
Since then, several attempts have been made to cost-effectively extract gold from seawater, but to no avail. For example, in the 1920s, German chemical weapons developer and Nobel laureate Fritz Haber began developing ways to retrieve gold from the sea. With this, he hoped to replenish the German treasury after the First World War. Haber and a group of scientists worked on it for years, but the whole project came to an end when he realised that his initial calculations overestimated the proportion of gold in the oceans.
How much gold is in the oceans?
At the end of the last century, it was possible to determine more precisely how much gold is found in seawater. Of course, there are also many questions regarding the current estimates, while it is now known that its concentration is very small. One study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that there is about 1 gram of gold in the ocean for every 100 million cubic meters of water.
The concentration is tiny, but there is a lot of water on Earth. A study by MIT found that there is a total of about 20 million tons of gold in the oceans. For comparison – according to the World Gold Council, nearly 210,000 tons of gold have been mined in the world. There is, therefore, about 100 times more gold in the ocean than there is on land.
What is the value of this gold? At current prices, a ton of gold costs around 50 million dollars. The price of 20 million tons is therefore 1.02 quadrillion or 1020 trillion dollars. Compared to the gross domestic product of the entire world, its value is more than 10 times greater.
Gold is also found in large quantities in the ocean floor than in the earth’s crust below, but these estimates are very rough.
Sifting gold from the ocean is not profitable
Given the environmental impacts and challenges, one might wonder why gold isn’t more extensively extracted from the oceans? Over the past century, various mineral deposits, including large amounts of gold, have been identified within our waters, but the practicalities of extraction remain challenging. To date, no cost-effective, large-scale method for mining this precious metal from seawater has been developed. Even small-scale efforts to harness the potential price of gold in international waters remain complex.
A study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 2018 unveiled a groundbreaking approach involving a material that acted like a “sponge,” efficiently capturing gold. This method not only allowed for the rapid extraction of gold from seawater but also facilitated the conversion of seawater into freshwater. It reportedly harvested nearly a gram of gold from seawater within a mere two minutes. But even this innovation faced obstacles. While promising, scaling this technology to a level where gold mining companies would find it profitable proved daunting. For now, its application seems limited to mines, aiding in the retrieval of gold that might have otherwise been lost during processing.
Furthermore, the long-term environmental impacts of such ventures can’t be ignored. While it’s uncertain what large-scale oceanic mining might entail, the repercussions on marine ecosystems could be significant. Already, there are concerns about the impacts of deep-sea mining, particularly on the deep seabed, which can disturb mineral resources and release heavy metals, jeopardising marine life. Gold producers must weigh the potential profits against the environmental toll, ensuring that our oceans remain a vital and sustainable resource for future generations.