Turning Rock into Revenue: Assaying and refining in Alaska.

Author:Choquette, Joy

According to state economists, Alaska's most lucrative industries are oil, tourism, and fishing. Timber, agriculture, and mining also garner a good amount of state revenue. In the mining industry, coal, zinc, and silver extraction are big business, as is mining and refining gold.

In 2018, the US Geological Survey reported that domestic gold mine production was approximately 210 tons, valued at approximately $8.6 billion. Gold was produced in a dozen states in 2018, primarily at Alaska's placer mines and in the western United States.

A Brief History

"There's gold in them thar hills," singer Frankie Marvin crooned in 1931. Gold's ongoing presence in pop culture speaks to people's long-running obsession with the precious metal. According to the International Precious Metal Institute, the process of extracting and refining precious metals dates to 2000 BC. Many cultures have used fire for centuries to extract metal from non-precious stone--a process first recorded in writing in 1556 in Asia Minor.

The most popular and prosperous time for gold mining occurred in the 1870s when prospectors moved in large numbers to the Last Frontier, then called the Department of Alaska. The gold rush hit in earnest in Alaska and parts of Canada in 1896--the start of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Though more than 100,000 people attempted to travel to the Klondike area, fewer than half successfully completed the journey, according The Klondike Gold Rush published by the History Channel. Those who did arrive were disappointed that the claims made about the prevalence of gold were grossly overstated.

After the initial gold rush, many miners turned to other ways of supporting themselves and their families--opening inns, saloons, and other retail establishments. Other large rushes, like those that occurred in 1909 at Iditarod and Flat, were perhaps the last of the great gold rushes.

But that doesn't mean that mining for gold and other precious metals has dried up. Gold remains an important Alaska export.

Fast-forward to present day and the extraction and refinement processes look very different from the timeworn image of a grizzled miner panning for gold nuggets in a brook.

Today there are four basic steps to mining and refining: prospecting--searching for precious metal deposits; mining--breaking up the ground to access precious metals; extracting--removing the rock that contains precious metals; and refining--separating precious metals from the surrounding stone.

How we...

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