There Are 20 Million Tons of Gold in the Oceans, But We Can’t Get at It

A nice idea, but you won’t get this from the sea. JAMES ST. JOHN/CC BY 2.0

In search of gold? Looking for the next gold rush? The oceans are a good place to look, however, it's not as easy as panning for gold.

According to the National Ocean Service, our oceans hold some 20 million pounds of gold, suspended in normal seawater. But this gold is spread throughout the normal mineral content of seawater to the tune of “parts per trillion.” As the NOAA puts it, “Each liter of seawater contains, on average, about 13 billionths of a gram of gold.” There are also gold deposits within the seafloor, but profitably mining them is far beyond our current abilities.

Nonetheless, gold is gold, and it has a way of making people believe all sorts of speculative things. Ever since British chemist Edward Sonstadt discovered that there was gold in seawater in 1872, there have been those who have tried to capitalize on it, honestly or not.

So why don’t we all headed down to the ocean with our gold pans in search of some of this ocean gold?

While it is indeed fact that gold in contained in seawater, the difficulty of extracting the gold lies in its extremely dilute existence. Although 20 million tons of gold may seem like an amazing amount, when you spread that throughout the entire ocean, you get a quantity of roughly 0.004 parts per BILLION. Another way to think about it would be that you would have to process around 30 million pounds of sea water to extract one ounce of gold. We are talking such miniscule quantities that it is hard to even wrap your head around it.

Many have considered that perhaps some type of mechanism could be attached to traveling ships, which could work as some sort of collection device. To date, no one has been able to design such a device. From time to time, you will hear someone make claims about successfully recovering gold from seawater, but they are generally looking for investors to take it to the next level (i.e. suckers to give them money). These fraudsters appear from time to time, and then recede into the shadows, with the seawater gold remaining safely in its place.

With technological advances in the world, who’s to say what will happen. Maybe at some point in the future, someone will come up with a method to mine the ocean's gold. But for now, such a project is economically unfeasible, so we will continue to search for gold on land.

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