This blog was contributed by the World Gold Council.
We have previously highlighted a number of breakthrough uses of gold, such as for devices that protect health and advance medical care around the world. Many of these technologies rely on minute particles of gold (commonly known as nanoparticles), which have properties of scientific interest. The first half of 2017 has seen a range of advances in the field, further showcasing the important role that gold can play in research.
In addition to their potential in healthcare applications, gold nanoparticles hold considerable interest to scientists working on solving some of the world’s most pressing environmental issues.
Global chemicals company Johnson Matthey has recently commercialized a sustainable, gold-based technology that is designed to remove a mercury-based material from chemical plants that make vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), a key input chemical for industrial plastics. The technology is a gold catalyst that delivers improved performance and, critically, contains no mercury. This product gives manufacturers access to an economically viable solution for complying with the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which states that new VCM plants will not be allowed to use a mercury catalyst after 2017. After 2022, all plants will have to switch to mercury-free catalysts. This work has won a number of prestigious awards, most recently the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Industry-Academia Award[i].
Another gold catalyst breakthrough relates to the generation of hydrogen for use in fuel cells – environmentally friendly power units that produce electricity, with water as the only byproduct. Fuel cells require a very pure stream of hydrogen to operate efficiently, and this can be difficult to achieve without an effective catalyst that operates at a low temperature. A newly published article suggests that a gold-based catalyst is one of the first materials identified to meet this aim, and holds considerable promise for a range of industrially important applications[ii].
Gold nanoparticles have also been identified as potentially playing a key role in solving a common problem faced by cryopreservation scientists.
An article published in a leading American Chemical Society journal states that researchers have used gold nanoparticles to help successfully reanimate frozen embryos. [iii] The process of deep freezing and then thawing is often hampered by the relatively slow thawing process that can cause the formation of ice crystals within the embryo, leading to irreparable damage. By adding a small amount of gold nanoparticles, the scientists were able to heat the embryo quickly using a laser, thus avoiding ice crystal formation. The researchers say the cryopreservation method could help to establish banks of frozen fish germ cells and embryos that could one day contribute to replenishing the oceans’ biodiversity. The technique could also be applied to amphibian, reptile and bird species that have similar embryonic sizes and structures.
These are just a few examples of how gold is helping to tackle some of the world’s most pressing environmental issues.
[iii] Khosla et al., ACS Nano, 2017; DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.7b02216