Known both for its practical and aesthetic value, gold is one of the most-used and well-known materials since the dawn of time. Gold has a wide variety of functions across different industries.
Is this wonder material a mineral or a metal? These simple questions can take us a step closer to understanding gold’s unique characteristics and why it has such a high value. To start, let’s distinguish the properties of a mineral and a metal.
What is a Metal?
Most metals naturally occur as crystalline solids that are hard, dense, and strong (with a few rare exceptions like mercury). We usually obtain gold, silver, copper, and other metals from deposits found under the earth.
Many elements in the periodic table classify as metals, making them a bit more difficult to generalize. However, they do share a few common attributes:
The General Characteristics of Metals
Many metals are opaque and can reflect light easily, which gives them a lustrous appearance. They also come in different colors. For instance, gold has a yellowish tinge, while copper has a red hue that turns blue when exposed to air.
Some metallic elements, like cobalt, nickel, and iron, are highly magnetic. However, many precious metals like gold don’t have this magnetic property. Some people take advantage of this characteristic and use it as a quick test to verify a metal’s purity. If an item is even slightly magnetic, then it’s not pure gold.
Many metals are good at conducting heat and electricity, meaning that both of these elements pass through them quickly and without much resistance. Even today, we still use gold when making some electronic devices because of its conductive properties.
Metals like gold and silver don’t break easily and are generally very durable. Only extreme strain and stress can cause them to fracture.
Metals are also ductile and malleable, meaning that it’s possible to mold them in different forms without causing damage. These features contribute to why many industries value gold so highly.
What is a Mineral?
For geologists, substances need to meet five basic requirements to have a mineral classification. Let’s break down these characteristics one by one.
The General Properties of Minerals
Ordered Internal Structure
All atoms in a mineral arrange themselves in repeating, systemic patterns. For this reason, a mineral found across different sources will always have the same internal structure. Some minerals like gold have a face-centered cubic structure, which adds to their malleability.
Definite Chemical Composition
Every natural form of a mineral only has one fixed chemical composition. For instance, the halite mineral (more commonly known as rock salt) always has an arrangement of sodium and chlorine atoms. Substances with no fixed composition (like volcanic glass) are called mineraloids.
As the name suggests, naturally occurring substances are not human-made and can be found throughout nature. By this definition, alloys produced from combining different metals (bronze, white gold, sterling silver, etc.) aren’t classifiable as minerals.
Any substance that isn’t made by a living organism is considered inorganic. Pearls and hardened tree resin are not minerals, despite both having a shiny appearance and being popularly used in jewelry.
Substances need to remain in solid form at standard pressures and temperatures. Otherwise, they are not considered a mineral.
The word mineral can also have a different meaning when used by nutritionists and other health professionals. It can refer to a group of inorganic substances needed by organisms to repair, grow, metabolize, and carry out other natural functions. By this definition, gold and other precious metals like silver and platinum aren’t minerals. The mineral nutrients required by the human body include copper, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and many others.
The Many Uses of Gold
Is gold a mineral or metal? In a nutshell, gold is classifiable both as a mineral and a metal. Its rarity, beautiful appearance, and unique characteristics contribute to its very high value.
So far, we have only been able to obtain gold through mining and recycling. While it’s possible to produce gold artificially through nuclear reactions, the process is very costly and not commercially feasible.
The combined physical properties of gold also make it useful for many different applications. Let’s explore some of its uses.
The durable, non-corrosive, and non-toxic characteristics of gold make it useful in dental applications. Gold use in dentistry dates back to nearly four millennia. Dentists have used it for bridgework, crowns, and filling. However, gold’s steep cost and the rise of better alternatives have caused a decline in its dentistry usage.
Airplanes, space ships, space satellites, and even astronaut uniforms have gold in them. Gold’s reflective qualities help stabilize the temperature of aircraft and reflect harmful radiation. Without a gold coating, the darker-colored parts of a structure absorb more heat, resulting in faster wear and tear.
Gold can also act as lubrication for mechanical parts. Many common organic lubricants become unstable and break down much faster in space. Once again, the cause is space’s intense radiation and heat. Gold’s highly malleable nature allows engineers to transform it into thin films that can coat and protect moving components. Under a microscope, the molecules of gold slide among each other when under friction, creating a lubricating action.
Gold has a high potential for medical purposes. For instance, it has seen plenty of uses in medical testing and imaging. Many diagnostic tests, like those for HIV-AIDS, malaria, syphilis, and African sleeping sickness, have gold nanoparticle components. One research team recently developed a universal test for cancer made from gold, taking only ten minutes to conduct with very few materials needed.
Gold nanoparticles can also act as medication vehicles that target specific areas in the body. This function gives it plenty of potential in cancer treatments and other chronic illnesses.
Despite the high cost of gold, its properties still ensure a high demand by the electronics industry. As we’ve mentioned, gold’s high conductivity makes it useful as an electronic component. Many gadgets, like phones and computers, have gold in them. In fact, almost every device that requires consistent electronic connections utilizes this material. While silver conducts electricity better than gold, the latter doesn’t tarnish or oxidize over time.
Art and Architecture
With gold being the most malleable metal, it can make for a beautiful and corrosion-resistant adornment. It’s possible to beat gold into incredibly thin sheets and use it to cover the surfaces of buildings and art pieces. Many American state capitols have gold-covered domes. You can also find gold leaf embellishments in both historical and modern paintings.
Thanks to its malleability and beauty, humans have used gold as jewelry throughout history. Unlike other metals, gold doesn’t tarnish or rust when exposed to moisture and air. It’s also able to form alloys with other metals, giving metallurgists and jewelers more freedom to change its strength and color.
Musicians yearn for a gold-certified record. Athletes strive for gold in the Olympic games. With gold being so highly valued, many organizations use it to make medals and trophies. Using gold awards adds prestige and gravity to winning a contest or reaching a milestone.
Food and Drink
Gold is tasteless, non-toxic, and passes through the body easily. While not very practical, gold is becoming a very popular garnish for both food and drink. A little bit of gold sheeting adds a touch of extravagance to any dish.
Gold for Investing
Over the years, gold has turned into a potential investment vehicle because of its high value. Some of the most common gold investments come in the form of bars, ingots, and coins. Gold IRAs are also becoming a very popular form of investment.
Why the interest in gold and precious metals? Unlike traditional investment vehicles like stocks or bonds, gold has several unique benefits.
Over the years, the growing wealth of rising market economies boosted gold’s demand. This phenomenon stretches across the globe, not just the U.S. For instance, India is one of the biggest gold consumers, especially during the October wedding season. In China, gold bars have always been a traditional form of saving wealth.
Gold as a precious metal has a value that is not influenced by inflation the same way traditional currencies like the dollar are affected. This characteristic makes gold and other precious metals a reliable safeguard against inflation. Even during a crisis in which traditional assets are negatively affected, gold remains strong, and it may even raise the value of your gold portfolio instead of hurting it.
Another factor that drives precious metal investments is their liquidity. When you invest, the ease of buying and selling the asset should be one of your primary concerns. With over billions of dollars in daily trades, gold is one of the most straightforward assets to buy and sell.
The benefits of gold make it lucrative for anyone interested in diversifying their investment portfolio. If you want to know more about making precious-metal investments, feel free to contact us at Learn About Gold, your source for Gold IRA information.