Science

Art and science combine to turn gold chloride into nuggets

Art and science combine to tur...
The Great Work of the Metal Lover forces extremophilic bacteria to metabolize high concentrations of highly toxic gold chloride which results in the formation of small deposits of gold metal (Photo: G.L. Kohuth)
The Great Work of the Metal Lover forces extremophilic bacteria to metabolize high concentrations of highly toxic gold chloride which results in the formation of small deposits of gold metal (Photo: G.L. Kohuth)
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The Great Work of the Metal Lover forces extremophilic bacteria to metabolize high concentrations of highly toxic gold chloride which results in the formation of small deposits of gold metal (Photo: G.L. Kohuth)
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The Great Work of the Metal Lover forces extremophilic bacteria to metabolize high concentrations of highly toxic gold chloride which results in the formation of small deposits of gold metal (Photo: G.L. Kohuth)
Gold flecks produced by The Great Work of the Metal Lover (Photo: G.L. Kohuth)
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Gold flecks produced by The Great Work of the Metal Lover (Photo: G.L. Kohuth)
Gold produced from the bioreactor identifies gold deposits in this digital image produced by Adam Brown (Photo: G.L. Kohuth)
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Gold produced from the bioreactor identifies gold deposits in this digital image produced by Adam Brown (Photo: G.L. Kohuth)
Gold being produced in The Great Work of the Metal Lover (Photo: G.L. Kohuth)
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Gold being produced in The Great Work of the Metal Lover (Photo: G.L. Kohuth)
Detail of the extracted gold (Photo: Adam Brown)
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Detail of the extracted gold (Photo: Adam Brown)
A 24K gold nugget (Photo: Adam Brown)
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A 24K gold nugget (Photo: Adam Brown)
The Great Work of the Metal Lover is a portable laboratory featuring a highly specialized metallotolerant extremophilic bacterium called Cupriavidus metallidurans that's forced to metabolize huge amounts of gold chloride to form flecks of usable 24K gold (Photo: Adam Brown)
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The Great Work of the Metal Lover is a portable laboratory featuring a highly specialized metallotolerant extremophilic bacterium called Cupriavidus metallidurans that's forced to metabolize huge amounts of gold chloride to form flecks of usable 24K gold (Photo: Adam Brown)
Close up of the custom glass bioreactor which creates an engineered atmosphere with the help of a gas manifold and a gas tank filled with carbon dioxide and hydrogen (Photo: Adam Brown)
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Close up of the custom glass bioreactor which creates an engineered atmosphere with the help of a gas manifold and a gas tank filled with carbon dioxide and hydrogen (Photo: Adam Brown)
The conversion process is documented in real time via a USB-connected microscope and video feed (Photo: Adam Brown)
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The conversion process is documented in real time via a USB-connected microscope and video feed (Photo: Adam Brown)
A second part of the experiment involves using a scanning electron microscope to create a series of images (Photo: Adam Brown)
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A second part of the experiment involves using a scanning electron microscope to create a series of images (Photo: Adam Brown)
Gold deposits produced by the microbes are identified and 24K gold leaf (some of which has been produced in the bioreactor) is selectively applied to digital image prints (Photo: Adam Brown)
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Gold deposits produced by the microbes are identified and 24K gold leaf (some of which has been produced in the bioreactor) is selectively applied to digital image prints (Photo: Adam Brown)

For centuries, the world's great thinkers were consumed by the search for the mythical Philosopher's Stone. Franciscan friar Roger Bacon is said to have penned a formula for its creation in the 13th century, legend would have us believe that German friar Albertus Magnus actually found a substance capable of transmuting base metals into gold or silver, and English scientist and mathematician Isaac Newton was a known devotee of the magnum opus. Researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) have put a microbial spin on the ancient quest by creating a bioreactor that forces bacteria to transform a toxic liquid that, as team member Kazem Kashefi says, "has no value into a solid, precious metal that’s valuable."

First and foremost, The Great Work of the Metal Lover (Magnum Opus Metallidurans) is described as an art installation, but one which embraces biotechnology and alchemy, too. The work of associate professor of electronic art and intermedia at MSU Adam Brown, in collaboration with assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics Kazem Kashefi, the portable laboratory features a highly specialized metallotolerant extremophilic bacterium called Cupriavidus metallidurans, which is contained within a custom glass bioreactor that creates an engineered atmosphere with the help of a gas manifold and a gas tank filled with carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

Close up of the custom glass bioreactor which creates an engineered atmosphere with the help of a gas manifold and a gas tank filled with carbon dioxide and hydrogen (Photo: Adam Brown)
Close up of the custom glass bioreactor which creates an engineered atmosphere with the help of a gas manifold and a gas tank filled with carbon dioxide and hydrogen (Photo: Adam Brown)

According to the researchers, the extreme minimal ecosystem within the bioreactor forces the bacteria to metabolize high concentrations of highly toxic gold chloride introduced into the system. After about a week of gorging, tiny amounts of usable 24-karat gold metal begin to form. The whole conversion process is documented in real time via a USB-connected microscope and video feed.

A second part of the experiment involves using a scanning electron microscope to create a series of images where the gold deposits produced by the microbes are identified and 24K gold leaf (some of which has been produced in the bioreactor) is selectively applied to prints.

"The Great Work of the Metal Lover speaks directly to the scientific preoccupation with trying to shape and bend biology to our will within the post biological age, essentially questioning the ethical and political ramifications of attempting to perfect nature," says Brown.

The stunning gold-plated bioreactor was recently displayed at Austria's prestigious Prix Ars Electronica 2012, where it picked up an Honorary Mention.

The Great Work of the Metal Lover is a portable laboratory featuring a highly specialized metallotolerant extremophilic bacterium called Cupriavidus metallidurans that's forced to metabolize huge amounts of gold chloride to form flecks of usable 24K gold (Photo: Adam Brown)
The Great Work of the Metal Lover is a portable laboratory featuring a highly specialized metallotolerant extremophilic bacterium called Cupriavidus metallidurans that's forced to metabolize huge amounts of gold chloride to form flecks of usable 24K gold (Photo: Adam Brown)

Brown says that the Earth's lakes and oceans are believed to contain trillions of dollars of dissolved gold in very dilute concentrations. Some researchers have even suggested that gold deposits are not formed through heat, pressure and geochemical processes at all, but by the action of microorganisms.

According to Brown, the cost of upscaling the experimental model would be prohibitive, so commercial production is unlikely, which is probably just as well. After all, having to admit that the beautiful gold pendant that you've just gifted your loved one was made by superstrength bacteria might just take the shine off the magic moment you were hoping to create.

The "Great Work of the Metal Lover" is fully detailed in the video below.

Source: MSU

The Great Work of the Metal Lover

6 comments
MichaelJRJose
This is truly fascinating, but without costings of the value of inputs to gold output, it is all just a pipedream, rather like those who have tried to extract gold from seawater, at greater cost than the value of the gold produced
Bruce H. Anderson
This takes me back to an old Twilight Zone episode, where some thieves stole a large amount of gold and used a time machine to go into the future (statute of limitations perhaps). I seem to recall one of the thieves begging for food/water, saying "we have gold" then dying. The requestee told the person next to him that gold was once valuable, but after it was able to be synthesized in the last century, it was no longer the case. Maybe we are approaching that time, and fiat money will reign victorious.
Bruce Miller
north of the Tar Sands huge leach beds provide mineral rich liqueurs for a Finnish invented technology to extract at least Gold, if not other , even rare earths. not new to Canadians.
Kwazai
if you can avoid the cianuric acid to get at the gold, how much would it take to set up a PC recycling facility to extract the chloride?
Svenjolly
Wow, gold chloride is of "little or no value"?! The current price of gold(III) chloride (aka AuCl3) is $146 per gram. And this equates to only 0.649 grams of pure gold, (for an equivalent price of $225 per gram of pure gold via this route). http://www.sigmaaldrich.com/catalog/product/aldrich/334049?lang=en®ion=US I guess I should not be surprised given that the old alchemist dream of turning lead into gold (which would require a nuclear reaction) is mentioned int the introduction, as if this was somehow analogous to process being reported on (which is the simple chemical reduction of gold ion to gold metal: Au^3 3 e- ==> Au^0).
Expanded Viewpoint
OK, I don't know where the raw stock (gold chloride) is coming from, but if it's a waste stream item from some other process, then how much actual expense is there in procuring it? Why not locate the "plant" nearby? As to the CO2 and H2, those can easily be obtained via fungi (fermentation) and photovoltaics. Once you have even one bacterium, it will reproduce itself through cell division and before too long with the right conditions, you have a huge colony of the little bugs working for you! It looks to me like it could easily be a stand alone system, or at least one that requires minimal supervision. You just show up every week or so and collect the "waste" product from the bio reactor. Where is the prohibitive cost of scaling this up to whatever size is needed to handle the volume of the input stream of gold chloride?? Or is it a matter of it not being a feasible process at any scale?? Randy