New uses for gold

Innovative uses of gold

Gold wires the internet and helps NASA protect its astronauts and equipment from radiation and heat with a layer of gold. It is a proven material for use in catalytic converters, and plays a role in the production of a range of chemicals we all use on a day to day basis.

Medicine

Gold nanoparticles are at the heart of the hundreds of millions of Rapid Diagnostic Tests (RDTs) that are used globally every year. This well established, and critically important, technology has changed the face of disease diagnosis in the developing world over the last decade. 

With World Gold Council support, researchers at Imperial College London worked on improving HIV/AIDS diagnosis technologies. Their experimental gold nanoparticle techniques are able to sense the presence of a target molecule at ultra-low concentration, improving early detection of the disease.  

Gold-based drugs have been developed and used to treat illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis. Research is currently ongoing into the role that gold can play in cancer treatment. A method has already been developed that delivers anti-cancer drugs directly to tumours using gold nanoparticles.

Environment

Gold nanoparticles are being used to improve the efficiency of solar cells, and gold-based materials are showing promise in the search for new, more effective fuel cell catalysts. Groundwater contamination is a common problem around the world in industrialised areas, and gold is being used to help break down contaminants into their component parts.

Engineering and aerospace

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, due to be launched in 2018, will search for the first galaxies that formed in the early universe. The telescope’s 18 hexagonal mirror segments have been covered with a microscopically-thin gold coating, making use of the metal’s properties as an efficient reflector of infrared light.

The same reflective properties have made gold a valuable coating for engineers in terrestrial settings. A thin coating of gold plating in windows reflects heat radiation, helping to keep buildings cool in summer and warm in winter, which lowers their energy costs and carbon emissions.

New technologies

As well as the established uses for gold, a host of other technology uses are being developed. One example is conductive nanoparticle ink for plastic electronics. Gold nanotechnologies have also been shown to offer functional benefits for visual display technologies, such as touch sensitive screens, and have potential for use in advanced data storage technologies such as advanced flash memory devices.

Gold is also helping to bring the fields of advanced electronics and medicine closer together. In the US, start-up company MC10 is commercialising a range of “stretchable electronics”, which use gold wires a few hundred nanometres thick applied to stretchable polymers. The circuits’ flexibility has opened up a huge range of potential applications, including implantable electronics that can monitor patients’ vital signs and warn of potential health problems; and stretchable solar panels that can be integrated into clothing.