How gold can help make the chemical industry more eco-friendly

News Arnulf Hinkel, financial journalist – 01.08.2018

Gold is so much more than the raw material to produce jewelry and gold bars. After the precious metal has become increasingly important to both the technological and the medical sectors, gold will also gain importance in the chemical industry in the near future, according to Sebastiaan van Haandel, managing director of technology firm Johnson Matthey.

Mercury can be replaced by gold

Although the catastrophic effects of mercury on humans and animals have been well-known since the 1950s, annual consumption of the highly toxic heavy metal amounts to roughly 4,000 tonnes. Much of it is used by the chemical industry in the production of vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), an intermediate chemical to polyvinyl chloride (PVC), in the form of a catalyst containing high mercury concentrations. These can be lost through evaporation, resulting in mercury emissions to air and water. According to van Haandel, the mercury content in the catalysts could be completely replaced by gold. This has not been done yet, since gold is much more expensive than mercury. This may change soon.

Rising gold demand due to the Minamata Convention?

Named after the largest environmental catastrophe due to mercury emissions to date, caused by the Chisso Corp. in Minamata, Japan, the Minamata Convention, which came into force in August 2017, aims to greatly reduce mercury emissions to the environment. One industry that is particularly affected by this convention is the PVC industry. In China alone, this sector is responsible for about a quarter of global mercury consumption. Gold could, in fact, replace mercury in the foreseeable future. Gold mining itself is also affected by the Minamata Convention: a taboo for the major mining companies for quite some time now, gold miners in emerging markets are still working with mercury – causing considerable damage not only to themselves but also to the environment. With the help of the Minamata Convention, this is to be stopped for good now.

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