How to Extract Gold From Pyrite

February 15, 2024

Pyrite, iron sulfide, may be worthless to gold miners but this glittering mineral has been, and continues to be, vitally important to modern human civilization. From fertilizers to electronics, pyrite has helped make the world we live in today, and it’s still a major source of sulfur—the main component of one of our most important industrial chemicals, sulfuric acid.

Pyritus is often mistaken for gold because of its brassy to golden color and gleaming metallic luster, which give it the nickname “fool’s gold.” It can also cause sparks when rubbed against a metal or other hard surface—which is probably how humans discovered fire, a crucial tool in their early evolution and development as a species. Pyrite’s other prominent gift to humanity is the chemical reaction that forms it into fire, giving rise to many of the technologies that have made life on Earth possible.

Although pyrite has a similar appearance to gold, it’s harder than the precious metal and can’t be scratched with a knife. It also gives off a sulphurous smell (like rotten eggs) when rubbed against a hard surface, while gold produces no such odor. If struck with a steel hammer, pyrite will shatter and reduce to powder while gold might flatten or change shape, but not break.

Because of gold’s much higher density, it is generally not able to be separated from pyrite mechanically, though it can be removed with mercury or other chemicals. Researchers have now developed a new way to separate gold from pyrite using atomic probe tomography, which uses electric pulses to peel atoms of the sample apart one by one, rather than heating and cooking them like in traditional methods.


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