GOLDROP: A Possible Mercury-Free Breakthrough?

The mercury that is used in artisanal and small-scale gold mining has a destructive impact on human, animal and plant life. Olga González FGA DGA reports on the GOLDROP processor that, through a collaboration between Mercury Free Mining and Industrial Rebuilders, may change the face – and impact – of the gold mining industry. This article was published in the Spring 2023 issue of Gem-A’s Gems & Jewellery Magazine.

Mercury poisoning continues to affect millions of children every day around the world, in part due to its use in gold extraction. According to United Nations Environment Programme (2013), artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) contributes to approximately 37% of mercury emissions on a global scale. In artisanal mining, mercury binds to gold to form an amalgam, separating it from other minerals. The amalgam is removed and heated by hand, isolating gold and distilling mercury but at a destructive cost to the environment, animals and humans alike.

In La Riconanda, Peru, a mining settlement rich in gold deposits, the average life expectancy for miners is 35 – 40 years (Kebede, 2019), due to mercury that contaminates the community’s only drinking water. The list of mercury poisoning symptoms is harrowing: toxicity in the central nervous system, seizures, nausea, headaches, motor dysfunction, memory loss, coughing, bleeding, swollen gums, trouble breathing, numbness, pain, blindness, paralysis and death. For gold miners working with mercury, one lives to work and works to die.

In 2017, jewellery designer Toby Pomeroy met Peter Diamandis, founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation, who asked him, “If you could make a difference in the quality of one billion people’s lives in the next ten years, what would you do?” The answer came to Mr Pomeroy immediately, in a spark that inspired a movement that our industry is getting behind. “I would take on and solve the problem of twenty million artisanal and small-scale gold miners, who currently release 12,000 pounds of mercury (Hg) every day, into our environment,” he responded.

Toby Pomeroy founded Mercury Free Mining (MFM) to eradicate mercury use in ASGM. Now, MFM is collaborating with Industrial Rebuilders Corp. on their GOLDROP processor, which shows promising gold recovery rates across analysed ore types. In 2020 Mercury Free Mining collaborated with the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) to identify possible program testing sites in South America, and in 2021, the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) enabled ARM and MFM to launch a program with two mining communities in Peru. Because of current political unrest, the research and processor testing are relocating to a small village mining site in Colombia, to allow for detailed analysis of its functionality and the willingness of miners to accept it in their daily work. In an interview with Toby Pomeroy and John Richmond, president of Industrial Rebuilders, we discuss the mercury crisis in detail, the GOLDROP processor and its capabilities and the journey towards a world where mercury pollution is no longer part of the gold pipeline.

The GOLDROP is a technological advancement for mining, created by Industrial Rebuilders Corp. Why were you interested in finding a solution to the mercury problem in mining?

John Richmond: The mining industry has been regulated to stress safety issues among its employees in performing their work in a safe manner. Artisanal miners, for the most part, are not regulated or taught safe mining practices. Therefore, the use of mercury to recover their gold exposes their lives and the lives of those around them to potential mercury poisoning, as well as poisoning the environment. Vaporising amalgamated mercury to extract the gold creates mercury vapours whose fumes are highly toxic when inhaled. Mercury vapours bio-accumulate in the body, causing ever-increasing neurological damage. The vaporised mercury also creates a mercury fallout from the atmosphere, as the vapours condense back to a solidstate, spreading out and depositing on the surrounding area on roofs, trees, waterways and on the soil for miles. This affects the food the people in the area grow, the animals they hunt and the water they drink by spreading poisonous mercury throughout the artisanal mining community. This is the why the focus is on artisanal miners to eliminate mercury use: to improve their health, the health of their community and to increase their standard of living by providing themwith more gold, but without mercury polluting our planet.

How exactly does the GOLDROP work without using mercury in the extraction process?

JR: The GOLDROP operates by harnessing the physics of elutriation, which in this case is defined as a vertical water flow suspending the less-dense dirt (3-5 gm/ cc), submerged in the water of the fluid trap in the GOLDROP. This vertical elutriation flow of water cannot support the higher-density matter — gold at 19.3gm/cc, platinum at 21.09 gm/cc, silver at 10.5 gm/cc or mercury at 13.5 gm/cc — so gravity takes over and the dense matter drops through the vertical elutriation water flow and into the jar. Adding more dirt into the GOLDROP funnel feeds the trap. The mass and gravity of the incoming dirt down the funnel displaces the fluidised dirt in the trap, ‘goosing’ the dirt tailings up and out of the GOLDROP and down the magnet sluice into the tailings bucket. The magnetite in the magnet sluice snags and holds on to the tiny flour gold particles (-200 mesh) that escape the GOLDROP that mercury cannot recover. The entire process works using only water, which continuously recirculates through the GOLDROP system powered by a 12-volt battery and a solar panel that keeps the battery fully charged without the need for a fossil fuel–powered generator.

Building a pathway for responsibly sourced mining is difficult. How did you gather support on the ground, at the mines, as well globally on both the trade and consumer level?

Toby Pomeroy: Sharing my passion for what is possible has been key and has attracted great people and support. I have been incredibly fortunate to have amazing support and partnership for what I am committed to.

At the Jewelers of America New York Jewelry Show in July 2017, I met Eric Laker, owner of Lashbrook Designs, a wholesale ring manufacturer in Utah. I shared my commitment, and he questioned me deeply about how my vision would make a difference on the ground and in real people’s lives. The following year, Eric joined our board of directors; he and Lashbrook have been our largest and most consistent donors.

They have gotten us to this point, where we have promising solutions for miners, who for thousands of years have not had access simple, affordable, efficient and safe means to make their living mining gold. I can’t express my appreciation for Eric and Lashbrook, and many others who have stretched themselves to envision and financially support such a huge cause.

What were the challenges faced when introducing the GOLDROP?

JR: The GOLDROP is a new and untested technology to recover gold. Gold miners in general are secretive about their gold-extraction techniques. New devices and techniques are hard to introduce among prospectors and gold miners, and they are slow to be adopted for this reason. I entered the Conservation X Labs Anti-Mercury contests (offered twice) to no avail; I was rejected for various reasons. The failure of recognition of the GOLDROP’s capability to eliminate mercury use among artisanal miners kept me motivated, as I knew the GOLDROP could accomplish that goal. Now the MFM test program has recognised the GOLDROP’s abilities.

In the beginning, creating a prize for the best mercury-free solution was a goal for MFM. How did that program work, and how has MFM evolved since then? What do you envision for the future?

TP: We began the program by focusing on raising a $1 million challenge prize as an award for the team of people who could come up with the best solution to mining common gold ore that didn’t required the use of mercury. But there was insufficient awareness in the jewellery industry to support a prize for discovery or invention regarding alternatives to mercury. So, we refocused our approach to see how we could find an efficient, innovative processor to help these miners work profitably and safely. We began looking for places where we could demonstrate safe mining practices on the ground to help educate and inform miners and the jewellery industry.

We are making tremendous progress, and the jewellery industry is becoming much more aware of the possibilities. Support for these programs is growing to the point where we are seeing a movement within the industry, and hearing murmurings of the jewellery industry taking on the issue of mercury as its purpose. Perhaps jewellery could become a purpose-driven industry.

How were you introduced to Toby? Tell us about ‘the room where it happened’, so to speak.

JR: I was introduced to Toby’s mission at Mercury Free Mining by Dave Varabioff, founder of Goldbay (www.goldbay.com), when demonstrating the GOLDROP at the GPAA Gold and Treasure Show in Las Vegas. When Dave saw the GOLDROP work, he was flabbergasted! He then told me about Toby and his organisation. I learned that Toby lived ten miles from me, in Corvallis, Oregon. I invited Toby to view the GOLDROP, and he too was very impressed with the GOLDROP performance. Toby then told me of the plight of the artisanal miners using mercury. I was, in turn, impressed with his efforts to solve this humanitarian and environmental disaster, and immediately became a corporate financial supporter of Mercury Free Mining. I am, as Sluice Goose Industries, a member of MFM’s Leadership Council in  the Chairman’s Circle. We both had high hopes for the GOLDROP, which motivated me to keep improving its performance to its current capability.

Tell us about your collaboration with GIA. How did that come about, and how are they working with MFM?

TP: In 2019 I was introduced to one of GIA’s community development team and we began searching for communities who desired mercury-alternative processes and that would be fitting for a small pilot program. I have been on the board of directors of the Alliance for Responsible
Mining since 2010, and we had also been exploring places where we might start a small mercury-free pilot. We researched innovative, safe processors effective with different ore types. We explored working with the Coodmilla Ltd. Mining Cooperative in Nariño, Colombia, but they were on a larger scale than was fitting for the MFM/GIA project.

Then we located two mines in Perú that were interested in increasing processing efficiency, and one was committed to eliminating mercury
use. GIA generously funded us with a $50,000 grant. We collected ore samples and shipped them to our geologist mining engineer, Caelen Burand, at the University of Arizona. Caelen completed the research late last year, finding that the GOLDROP was the most effective in separating gold from the Peruvian ores. We are ready to implement Phase 2 of the program, but since that area of Perú is politically unstable, we haven’t been able to work there. So we shifted the focus of Phase 2 to working with a small Colombian community. We are traveling there 20 – 25 March to gather ore samples, demonstrate the GOLDROP, train the miners, to learn if the processor is more efficient than using mercury and to leave the GOLDROP with them for 30 to 60 days to see if they prefer it to mercury.

How do you measure efficiency and success with the GOLDROP?

JR: My sincere hope is to manufacture the GOLDROP in abundance for sale, with the goal of eliminating the use of mercury among artisanal miners, improving their lives and those of their families, the mining communities’ general wellbeing and to help save the planet
from mercury pollution. This will also set the stage for further research and development to scale the GOLDROP elutriation process for greater volume of material processed, while maintaining its mercury-free capabilities to recover gold.

What do you hope the GOLDROP does for the mining industry, the gem trade and the world?

TP: If the GOLDROP proves to be as effective in the community, as it is in the lab results, I hope that word will rapidly spread, others will want to use it and inventors will want to improve upon it. I hope the GOLDROP is a catalyst for innovation, discovery and support, where the jewellery industry can announce to the world that we have taken on solving a 3,000-year-old problem, because we care, and because we are designers of our own future and we are capable of anything.

If this works, it may open new doors, open people’s eyes and their hearts, acknowledging that we really are one family, interdependent with one another and with the natural world. The GOLDROP may be a spark that ignites a fire, inspiring a jewellery industry dedicated to mercury-free children, and gold mining in harmony with all people and the natural world.

For more information about supporting mining communities and achieving mercury-free gold processing, visit www.mercuryfreemining.org, To learn more about the GOLDROP, visit www.sluicegooseindustries.com.

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