In 1934, an article in “Popular Mechanics” predicted that American industry would soon devise a way to extract gold from seawater, probably sometime within the following decade — and quite probably within the next year.
Apparently, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, Ethyl-Dow, was researching the possibility of such a “modern miracle” at the time. Well… if they succeeded, they’ve kept the process a huge secret for quite some time now.
The Real Deal
The magazine made its cocky prediction soon after industrial scientists invented a way to pull the element bromine from seawater in large amounts. That was a big deal in ’34, because bromine was an important ingredient in tetraethyl lead, which was used in the manufacture of anti-knock gasoline.
The point was that if we could extract something as rare as pure bromine from water, then who knew what was possible? It seemed reasonable to think that, with a little technical refinement, we might be able to shake gold loose, too. Well…as it turns out, that was a pipe dream.
Investment Potential… Or Lack Thereof
Now, you may be wondering how the whole gold-and-seawater thing applies to a precious metals investment blog.
Well, here’s the thing: as you do your research, you’re likely to come across the concept occasionally. Some people take it seriously (or at least pretend to), and may even ask you to invest in such a scheme, promising riches if they can just get the gold extraction process up and running on a commercial scale.
I advise you strongly to avoid any such proposal. These schemes represent the same kind of magical thinking that tarnishes so many investment opportunities.
No matter how reasonable the methodology might seem, we just don’t have the technology yet. We probably won’t have it within your lifetime, because for the foreseeable future, gold will be easier to acquire from sources more willing to let it go.
Hope Springs Eternal
So, why does this rumor keep popping up in investment circles?
Because there really is a measurable amount of gold dissolved in seawater: on the order of a milligram per ton. Otherwise, companies like Ethyl-Dow wouldn’t have spent any time on researching the possibility of extracting it.
Back in the ’30s, that worked out to about $10,000,000 per cubic mile of ocean water. At the time, the price of gold was about $35 per ounce; as of mid-2012, it’s around $1,600. Today, that would work out to almost half a billion dollars per cubic mile of seawater…and there are about 300,000,000 of those.
But think about those numbers again for a moment. A milligram is one thousandth of a gram; a ton is 2,000 pounds. So assuming you could find a way to extract that gold, you’d have to process over 62 million pounds of seawater to obtain just one troy ounce.
You’d somehow have to do that both simply and profitably…and if you wanted to keep making money, you’d have to dispose of the outflow and constantly draw in fresh water with all the gold still dissolved in it.
Clearly, extracting gold from seawater is impractical at the moment. But that doesn’t mean it’s altogether impossible.
Admittedly, trying to pull dissolved gold from seawater via chemical or mechanical means is fantastically difficult. However, evidence suggests that certain bacteria can extract gold from seawater under certain conditions.
So it’s possible that in the future, genetically engineered microbes may make viable gold recovery from seawater a reality. But don’t hold your breath waiting for it; and if it does happen, wait until it’s 100% proven before you invest a dime.