Gold: a metal with a silver lining

December 19, 2001

COLLEGE STATION, December 19, 2001 - Consider gold.

It's been lusted after for 6,000 years and has been used for everything from wedding rings to dental work and arthritis treatments, a catch-all, kitchen-sink type metal that has multiple uses.

Now it may even improve that kitchen sink.

Texas A&M University scientists are refining a process that uses small gold clusters in an oxidation process that could lead to dozens of improved materials, including textiles, laundry soaps and even antifreeze.

Dr. John Fackler and Dr. Wayne Goodman, both Distinguished Professors of Chemistry at Texas A&M, have taken minute, nano-sized particles of gold and using them as a catalyst. Oxidized substances passing through them result in a purified, and in a sense, "smoke free" state.

Their research, funded by Dow Chemical and the Robert A. Welch Foundation, has been published in Langmuir, the journal of the American Chemical Society.

"It means that many materials, such as antifreeze, might be produced more efficiently and more cheaply," explains Fackler.

"A lot of times, it takes 12 steps to produce many industrial products," adds Goodman. "We are trying to knock that down to just one or two steps."

The obvious results: products are cheaper to make, take less time and in many cases, are environmentally superior.

It's possible, Fackler believes, that new methods of producing alternative fuels for cars and airplanes could spring from the new refining process. In today's cars, the process might also have possibilities for making catalytic converters more efficient, thereby reducing emissions.

Gold, Fackler believes, is one metal that has a silver lining, so to speak.

Because it has been sought-after for centuries as a symbol of wealth, its chemical qualities have been overlooked. "We have learned more about gold since 1980 than in the previous 6,000 years," Fackler, who has devoted much of his life studying the chemistry of the metal, believes.

"It really is a wonderful and somewhat mysterious metal. Gold's properties are much different from other metals and it has new uses that we are finding about all the time.

"When you think that one substance can be injected into a knee to relieve arthritis pain, can be used to fill teeth, and now we think might even be useful in chemotherapy treatments for cancer patients, now that is an amazing metal.

"Working with gold has given me more pleasure than any other substance."

That the body tolerates gold either internally or on the surface has been known for centuries, Fackler notes. He says documents show Indians and Egyptians used particles of gold added to their food, sometimes as salad dressing "because they believed eating gold made you feel better," he says.

"Unlike other metals, gold is non-toxic when it's in the blood system," he adds. Gold's luminescent qualities - it glows in the dark under the right conditions - are just now being investigated, he says.

"The more we examine gold, the more we find out what it can do," Fackler confirms. "For me, it's the most interesting element in the world."

Texas A&M University

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