The mining of precious metals is currently, and has long been, big business. In 2007, the market capitalization of mining companies worldwide was estimated to be $962 billion. Not surprisingly, a good portion of these was comprised of those specializing in the procurement of precious metals.
The practice of mining has been undertaken by civilizations since the beginning of time. In the earliest of times, mining was used as a means by which to acquire the stones and metals used in tools and weapons. As time progressed however, demand for different materials developed, and the application of mining expanded. It was the ancient Egyptians around 2,500 B.C. who first undertook mining for the purpose of obtaining precious metals. Large mines, such as the gold mines of Nubia, provided the metal the Egyptians revered for its beauty. Later, the Greeks and Romans would acquire a taste for precious metals with the Romans undertaking large-scale projects conceived to procure gold and silver during their conquests of Western Europe, specifically Spain and Britain. More recently of course, European explorers exploited the untapped resources of North America to bring precious metals back to their homelands. In the United States, mining drove the expansion westward with settlers panning for gold across California and later Alaska, while the General Mining Act of 1872 encouraged miners, regardless of their location in the U.S. to seek gold, silver, and platinum among other metals on federal public land.
Each of these earlier miners undertook similar processes through which they could effectively glean precious metals. First, mining scouts would seek out appropriate locations by searching for ore bodies. Once theses were located, an estimation of both the cost of mining as well as the potential value of metal to be secured was made. Next, a feasibility study designed to determine the logistical probability of success is undertaken. Provided it is ascertained that the mining project is worthwhile, those responsible for the enterprise move forward and acquire the equipment necessary for completing the mining.
Since the practice has been undertaken, tools and oftentimes machines have aided in the process. The Romans developed and employed early machines such as aqueducts and water-wheels for the purposes of hydraulic mining. In modern mining, heavy machinery such as bulldozers, trucks, drills, and trams have replaced these comparatively primitive designs.
To obviate the use of machinery, certain civilizations employed the use of creative techniques in mining. In many cases, this cut down on the overall cost and time needed for a particular project. Fire-setting, the process of setting a fire against an undesired stone or surface and then dousing it with cool water to affect thermal shock and crack the stone has been used since pre-historic times. More recently, the use of black powder and other explosives have replaced this practice.
As with any many other large-scale undertakings, mining can have significant environmental impacts. The very process of creating a recess in the earth is understood to have negative effects. Sinkholes and erosion have been attributed to this. Chemical contamination of soil and groundwater is also a concern. Many substances used in chemical processes underground can seep into surrounding earth. In addition, the process of mining generally produces waste. Substances leftover from the separation of ore are called tailings. These materials, which are usually toxic, are oftentimes returned to the earth, and sometimes left in ponds and other water sources.
Modern mining processes have digested these previous experiences to yield the most cost-effective, time-efficient, and environmentally-friendly approach to mining possible. The result is the precious metals we all know and love and the best possible pricing.