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Look closely at Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo 11 spacesuit, and you’ll see your reflection in gold. That’s just one of the surprising uses of the precious metal in the 20th and 21st centuries. Especially after the space age brought advances in electronics, satellite communications and other crucial technologies for today’s world, gold took on more uses than in just jewellery, finance and dentistry.
Back in the 1800s, gold fillings started to be used in dentistry for cavities, after long being used as a store of value and object of admiration in gold bars and rings. With the growth of microelectronics later in the 1900s, gold took on a whole new range of applications as a crucial component in thin film circuits. Long known for its malleability–the ability of a metal to be bent without breaking–gold continues to be used in thin film electronics. Unlike copper, gold doesn’t tarnish when exposed to humid air or chemicals typically found in the environment like oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Another factor justifying gold’s use in the computer industry is that it is unaffected by water and acids used in etching microelectronic circuits. While other conductive metals would dissolve in etches used to fabricate CPUs, gold–like platinum–only dissolves in a specific solution called aqua regia, formed from hydrochloric acid and nitric acid, rather than the typical solutions used to etch CPU chips like hydrochloric acid alone.
According to this graphic by Rosland Capital, 45% of the world’s gold goes to technological or industrial applications, and a cell phone even contains about $0.50 worth of the precious metal. Only 10% goes to investment and finance, including ETFs like State Street Global Advisors’ GLD. Ever since the debut of this ETF in 2004, gold-based financial products have arisen along with ETFs tracking oil and other tradable assets that investors can buy for exposure to their underlying markets. While these can be used to hedge for specific events, there are also IRAs based on gold for anyone who shares a long term bullish outlook on the metal.
The other 45% of supply can be looked at in two ways: the investment side of collecting jewelry for its precious metal content, and the more subjective side of prizing a ring or other item for its qualitative factors that couldn’t be measured in economic terms.