Precious Metals: From Mining to Refining
Nearly everyone carries an image of a dusty, grizzled prospector panning for Gold in the California hills when thinking of sourcing Gold. It was put there by an old Western movie, a 1970s TV show or a rags-to-riches novel. Panning for Gold is a romanticized part of our American history that many of us may still dream of, but it is also thoroughly outdated. Modern Precious Metals mining is a complicated but fascinating process whether looked at logistically, financially or environmentally. Let’s examine the ways contemporary Precious Metals mining has moved away from the images in our imagination to become a major multinational endeavor.
Precious Metals are rare, naturally occurring metallic chemical elements that enjoy a high economic value. Precious Metals tend to be noble elements within in the periodic table, meaning they are less reactive than most elements. They are generally lustrous and ductile. Historically, Precious Metals were important for use as currency and in the decorative arts, but are now regarded largely as investment or industrial commodities.
Mining is the process of removing Precious Metals from places where they naturally occur in the Earth’s crust. There are several types of mining and part of the process of mining is determining which type is best for the material and the spot to be mined. To break it down, surface mining focuses on retrieving minerals near the surface of the Earth while underground mining is the process of digging tunnels or shafts to reach buried minerals for extraction. Both surface mining and underground mining require vast amounts of man-power as well as heavy machinery. Today, surface mining is much more common, producing approximately 98% of metallic ores mined in the U.S.
The term “surface mining” can be misleading, however. Strip mining, open-pit mining and mountaintop removal are all examples of surface mining techniques. However, each of these can have devastating environmental impact, which is why mine reclamation has become such a vital part of the mining process. Mine reclamation refers to the act of returning as much land as possible to its natural, pre-mining state. This is the final and perhaps most important part of the mining process.
However, there is more to processing Precious Metals than just extracting them from the ground. The raw materials must be refined. Refining is essentially the purification of the Precious Metal. The metal is melted and foreign matter is removed. It is a simple concept, but the process is complicated and exacting, involving both mechanical and chemical applications broken down into minute steps.
When Precious Metals are refined to proper standards, they are finally made into the bullion and coins so admired and sought after throughout the world. When you consider the vast amount of effort and expertise that goes into producing a single ounce of Gold, Silver, or Platinum, you can easily see why they are heralded as Precious Metals.