Thursday, July 21, 2011

Golden Sea Squirts

(Image courtesy of National Geographic)

Moose Cabin is host to a constant flow of scientists over the course of the Hard Rock Revision project. Apart from the in-depth and engaging conversations that take place during the day, it is a treat to stay late into the evening to chat about miscellanea with intellectuals. Recently, the geologist Rob Blair stayed a night. By day the team learned about the geology of the San Juan’s on a micro and macro scale. By night, sitting under the placid stare of a mounted moose head above the fireplace, Rob opened up another avenue of thought to ponder – sea squirts.

Apparently sea squirts are the only creature with vanadium coursing through their circulatory system. Vanadium as you might or might not know is a heavy metal, and in the ocean this element can only be detected using finely tuned scientific equipment. Somehow the feeble sea squirt has evolved as a magnet in a haystack, in some cases concentrating vanadium to a level one million times that of the surrounding sea water. Why should anyone care about the feeble sea squirt? In gold country I have learned about new technologies and methods to extract gold from ore. The latest strategy is cyanide heap leach mining, in which a large area is prepared with a liner, ore piled high inside, and cyanide pumped over the top of the pile to leach out the gold. In tragic instances, this method fails with grave environmental consequences.

Back to the evening conversations - Rob Blair is describing in detail the sea squirt in all it’s glory and I am questioning where the conversation is going. He then began to describe how much gold was present in the oceans, suspended as microscopic particles. If the feeble sea squirt was capable of absorbing vanadium, perhaps a similar organism could be engineered to attract gold from its surrounding saline environment. Maybe it is a plant, or another type of organism. How much value would this creature capture? Gold is currently priced at $1,600/oz, while one square mile of ocean can contain as much as 25 tons of gold. The value of a miracle organism with an appetite for gold could yield almost 1.3 billion dollars, however the unintended consequences might be considerable, perhaps even comparable to dripping cyanide through ore.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting stuff. First off, the Nat Geo image above is amazing. The oval shapes and bright colors remind me of some of the art direction in Pixar's Finding Nemo. Anywho, the prospect of using new technology to extract precious minerals and resources will probably continue indefinitely, especially as technology becomes more flexible, organic and able. It's no surprise such seemingly far out ideas are being explored. (Space elevator, anyone?)

    The unintended consequences idea is spot on - for example, should we modify such organism so that large quantities of gold become easily available, would we want to so? Gold's worth would then significantly drop, then we would need much more of it- and suddenly a new feedback loop has begun, with likely exponentially harmful ripple effects.

    A much bigger question, as you mentioned, is what happens to the fragile ecosystems that provide the resource? And in regards to bio engineering, we're facing similar questions in the world of food - if we genetically modify biological organisms, at first for a seemingly good goal, what do we do when we begin to lose control ?