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Beyond Bling


Close to 300 metric tonnes of gold are used in a wide variety of industrial applications each year.

Although silver is more widely thought of as an industrial metal than gold, close to 300 metric tonnes of gold are used in a wide variety of industrial applications each year.

Since gold doesn't corrode, crumble or tarnish and is unaffected by moisture, oxygen, and ordinary acids, it is the best of the metals to use in critical applications-like the inner-workings of automotive airbags and F-18 (BA) ejector seats.

Are you reading this on an Apple (AAPL) computer?

The contacts are electroplated with a thin film of gold, which ensures an atomically clean metal surface with an electrical contact resistance close to zero.

Ever hear of a little company called Intel (INTC)?

Gold bonding wire, refined to 999.99 purity and a mere one hundredth of a millimeter thick, is used in semiconductors to connect transistors and integrated circuits, and in printed circuit boards to link components.

Been on vacation lately?

Far more effective than the mirrored shades your pilot was likely wearing, the cockpit windows of that Airbus (EAD.PA) A320 you were on had a layer of wafer-thin gold film on them to deflect infrared radiation.

Gold film is also often applied to office windows to reflect heat radiation, cutting cooling and heating costs by about 40%.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of California, San Francisco found that gold nanoparticles coated with a cancer antibody were highly effective at binding to tumor cells and scattering light, making it easier to differentiate non-cancerous cells from malignant ones and helping to ensure that only the malignant cells would be destroyed during treatment.

Gold nanoparticles coated with cancer antibodies

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor may prescribe gold salts, which reduce joint inflammation by rendering MHC class II proteins, which are associated with autoimmune diseases, inactive.

New uses for gold found by South African research group Autek, formed by AngloGold Ashanti (AU) in 2000 (with additional funding from Gold Fields (GFI) and Harmony Gold (HMY)), are expected to lead to an extra demand of 280 tonnes by 2015, according to David Thompson of the World Gold Council.

As many myriad real-world uses as there are for gold, decorative use still accounts for 80% of the yearly global production total-about 2,500 metric tonnes last year.

Obviously, gold is, for many people, the ultimate in status.

And, if one can't afford gold jewelry?

Steal it, of course!

Last November, South Africa's Institute of Security Studies released a report estimating that 1.8 bln to 2 bln rand worth of gold is stolen every year-that's about $290 mln.

Tony de Beer, general manager of South Africa's Barberton Mines Ltd., estimated in 2004 that the amount of gold lost to burglary in the company's Sheba Mine was around 30 kilograms, almost equal to the company's own production.

Sheba Mine

With 400 openings, it's not hard for unauthorized "visitors" to find their way inside.

de Beer estimates that, at times, there have been as many as 250 thieves inside the mine simultaneously.

Groups of people, thought by police to be working for 17 different criminal syndicates, often carry enough supplies and lighting to remain in the mines for days or even weeks on end.

Increased security has the thieves quite upset.

South African newspaper The Citizen reported last month that seven gold dust smugglers at Gold Fields' Kloof mine had paid 350,000 rand to have mine supervisor Wally Snyman and plant supervisor Stephen Bruce murdered.

Of late, robberies, at least at Sheba, seem to be on the decline.

What did they do?

Well, walls can be scaled.

Fences can be cut.

Locks can be picked.

So, Barberton hired a company to keep an eye on the mine at night in the mountains overlooking the site.

There are numerous South African security contractors, primarily made up of former members of the elite apartheid-era special forces, such as the ominous-sounding Civil Cooperation Bureau, the 32 Buffalo Battalion, the Parachute Brigade, Reaction Unit 9, the Reconnaissance Commandos, Koevoet, and Vlakplaas-many of whom received amnesty for crimes committed during the apartheid era from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It seems that, in addition to protecting his company's gold, de Beer took a strangely benevolent approach to bringing on his security force.

"They were trained in what you might call 'guerrilla warfare' in Namibia", de Beer told Norwatch, an independent news service that conducts journalistic investigations of Norwegian companies doing business in developing countries.

"There are no guerrilla wars there any more, and these men were unemployed."
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