Monday, June 14, 2010

Gold Refining Goes Digitally Enhanced

This item is an interesting convergence between gold and tech, which may be a portent of a more thoroughgoing wave of innovation in molecular chemistry. Andy Robinson has come up with a digitally-derived process to extract gold from waste materials and rock. On the innovation front, the trick is to use computers to digitally simulate molecular reactions and pick out ones that will get the job done more efficiently and with less waste. The Institute of Digital Innovation (IDI) at Teesside University is an organization geared to that kind of study.
“In many ways, the greatest innovation with this project is moving a heavy element of process design onto a computer screen and out of the laboratory where the greatest expenses occur.

“There is an additional benefit in that the resulting gold won’t have any toxic impurities associated with current extraction techniques – especially important for medical research,” he added....

He added: “With gold trading at record prices they are opening up old gold mines where there is a lot of waste material that most people would think is of little or no value. But if you can extract and purify the gold you can get very high-value material.

“To achieve this you would normally need a very expensive scientific lab. However, thanks to the IDI and university facilities, I have access to the software needed to digitally design how to map out scientific reactions at a molecular level and predict what will happen to the raw materials.”...

It seems quotidian, but the significance of it is huge. Chemistry traditionally worked by slogging through the books, calculating reactions out on paper, forming hypotheses based on that work, and testing them in the lab. Much like a spreadsheet worked before the first spreadsheet programs came along. I don't know enough chemistry to spell out what would be affected by this advance, but the pace of innovation is going to be speeded up considerably as computing power increases. Right now, it takes either a supercomputer or an Internet-connected network of a large number of PCs to get the job done. Given advances in computer power, though, it's foreseeable that one single computer will complete the task in (say) ten or fifteen years. Once the tech reaches that level, and the corresponding software is properly coded, there will be a lot of new reaction hypotheses generated a lot more quickly. It's almost a certainty that some of them will make current processes cheaper and/or less wasteful.

It's not nanotech, but it's a lot closer to feasibility than nanotech is.

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