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Mining and mineral processing: gold


Gold was discovered in South Africa in the late 1800's and since then has played a very important role in South Africa's history and economy . Its discovery brought many foreigners into South Africa, who were lured by the promises of wealth. They set up small mining villages, which later grew into larger settlements, towns and cities. One of the first of these settlements was the beginning of present-day Johannesburg, also known as 'Egoli' or 'Place of Gold'.

Most of South Africa's gold is concentrated in the 'Golden Arc', which stretches from Johannesburg to Welkom. Geologists believe that, millions of years ago, this area was a massive inland lake. Rivers feeding into this lake brought sand, silt, pebbles and fine particles of gold and deposited them over a long period of time. Eventually these deposits accumulated and became compacted to form gold-bearing sedimentary rock or gold reefs . It is because of this complex, but unique, set of circumstances that South Africa's gold deposits are so concentrated in that area. In other countries like Zimbabwe, gold occurs in smaller 'pockets', which are scattered over a much greater area.

Mining the gold

A number of different techniques can be used to mine gold. The three most common methods in South Africa are panning , open cast and shaft mining.

  1. Panning Panning for gold is a manual technique that is used to sort gold from other sediments. Wide, shallow pans are filled with sand and gravel (often from river beds) that may contain gold. Water is added and the pans are shaken so that the gold is sorted from the rock and other materials. Because gold is much more dense, it settles to the bottom of the pan. Pilgrim's Rest in Mpumalanga, was the first site for gold panning in South Africa.
  2. Open cast mining This is a form of surface mining. Surface layers of rock and sediments are removed so that the deeper gold rich layers can be reached. This type of mining is not suitable if the gold is buried very deep below the surface.
  3. Shaft mining South Africa's thin but extensive gold reefs slope at an angle underneath the ground, and this means that some deposits are very deep and often difficult to reach. Shaft mining is needed to reach the gold ore. After the initial drilling, blasting and equipping of a mine shaft, tunnels are built leading outwards from the main shaft so that the gold reef can be reached. Shaft mining is a dangerous operation, and roof supports are needed so that the rock does not collapse. There are also problems of the intense heat and high pressure below the surface which make shaft mining very complex, dangerous and expensive. A diagram illustrating open cast and shaft mining is shown in [link] .
    Diagram showing open cast and shaft mining

Processing the gold ore

For every ton of ore that is mined, only a very small amount of gold is extracted. A number of different methods can be used to separate gold from its ore, but one of the more common methods is called gold cyanidation .

In the process of gold cyanidation, the ore is crushed and then cyanide (CN - ) solution is added so that the gold particles are chemically dissolved from the ore. In this step of the process, gold is oxidised. Zinc dust is then added to the cyanide solution. The zinc takes the place of the gold, so that the gold is precipitated out of the solution. This process is shown in [link] .

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Source:  OpenStax, Siyavula textbooks: grade 11 physical science. OpenStax CNX. Jul 29, 2011 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11241/1.2
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