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Gold mining from alluvium ores was once achieved by techniques associated with placer mining such as simple gold panning and sluicing, resulting in direct recovery of small gold nuggets and flakes. Placer mining techniques since the mid to late 20th century have generally only been the practice of artisan miners. Hydraulic mining was used widely in the Californian gold rush, and involved breaking down alluvial deposits with high-pressure jets of water. Hard rock ores have formed the basis of the majority of commercial gold recovery operations since the middle of the 20th century where open pit and or sub-surface mining techniques are used.
Once the ore is mined it can be treated as a whole ore using a dump leaching or heap leaching processes. This is typical of low-grade, oxide deposits. Normally, the ore is crushed and agglomerated prior to heap leaching. High grade ores and ores resistant to cyanide leaching at coarse particle sizes, require further processing in order to recover the gold values. The processing techniques can include grinding, concentration, roasting, and pressure oxidation prior to cyanidation.
According to de Lecerda and Salomons (1997) mercury was first in use for extraction at about 1000 BC., according to Meech and others (1998), mercury was used in obtaining gold until the latter period of the first millennia. A technique known to Pliny the Elder was extraction by way of crushing, washing, and then applying heat, with the resultant material powdered.
The solubility of gold in a water and cyanide solution was known by 1783 (Scheele), by Bagration in 1843 and Elsner in 1846 who recognized the necessity of oxygen in the process, (a method of extraction by chlorination (Plattner) considered during 1848 proved uneconomical) this prior to the discovery of an economical method of treatment with potassium cyanide by J.S. MacArthur (with R. and, or, W. Forrest). Development of understanding from 1887 led to the discovery dated to 1888 (and elsewhere 1890) that is known as the MacArthur-Forrest process.
Gold occurs principally as a native metal, usually alloyed to a greater or lesser extent with silver (as electrum), or sometimes with mercury (as an amalgam). Native gold can occur as sizeable nuggets, as fine grains or flakes in alluvial deposits, or as grains or microscopic particles embedded in other rocks.
Gravity concentration has been historically the most important way of extracting the native metal using pans or washing tables. Amalgamation with mercury was used to enhance recovery, often by adding it directly to the riffle tables, and mercury is still widely used in small diggings across the world. However, froth flotation processes may also be used to concentrate the gold. In some cases, particularly when the gold is present in the ore as discrete coarse particles, a gravity concentrate can be directly smelted to form gold bars. In other cases, particularly when the gold is present in the ore as fine particles or is not sufficiently liberated from the host rock, the concentrates are treated with cyanide salts, a process known as cyanidation leaching, followed by recovery from the leach solution. Recovery from solution typically involves adsorption on activated carbon followed by solution concentration or stripping and or electrowinning.
Froth flotation is usually applied when the gold present in an ore is closely associated with sulfide minerals such as pyrite or arsenopyrite, and when such sulfides are present in large quantities in the ore. In this case, concentration of the sulfides results in concentration of gold values. Generally, recovery of the gold from the sulfide concentrates requires further processing, usually by roasting or wet pressure oxidation. These pyrometallurgical or hydrometallurgical treatments are themselves usually followed by cyanidation and carbon adsorption techniques for final recovery of the gold.
Sometimes gold is present as a minor constituent in a base metal (e.g. copper) concentrate, and is recovered as a by-product during production of the base metal. For example, it can be recovered in the anode slime during the electrorefining process.
If the gold can not be concentrated for smelting, then it is leached by an aqueous solution:
Leaching, Bulk leach extractable gold or BLEG, is also a process that is used to test an area for gold concentrations where gold may not be immediately visible.
A "refractory" gold ore is an ore that is naturally resistant to recovery by standard cyanidation and carbon adsorption processes. These refractory ores require pre-treatment in order for cyanidation to be effective in recovery of the gold. A refractory ore generally contains sulfide minerals, organic carbon, or both. Sulfide minerals often trap or occlude gold particles, making it difficult for the leach solution to complex with the gold. Organic carbon present in gold ore may adsorb dissolved gold-cyanide complexes in much the same way as activated carbon. This so-called "preg-robbing" carbon is washed away because it is significantly finer than the carbon recovery screens typically used to recover activated carbon.
Pre-treatment options for refractory ores include:
The refractory ore treatment processes may be preceded by concentration (usually sulfide flotation). Roasting is used to oxidize both the sulfur and organic carbon at high temperatures using air and/or oxygen. Bio-oxidation involves the use of bacteria that promote oxidation reactions in an aqueous environment. Pressure oxidation is an aqueous process for sulfur removal carried out in a continuous autoclave, operating at high pressures and somewhat elevated temperatures. Ultra fine grinding may be used when liberation of gold particles from the surrounding mineral matrix is the primary refractory characteristic of the ore.
Mercury is a health hazard, especially when in gas form. To remove this hazard, before smelting, gold precipitates from electrowinning or Merrill-Crowe processes are usually heated in a retort to recover any mercury present, that would otherwise cause health and environmental problems due to its release (volatilization) during smelting. The mercury present is not usually from the mercury amalgamation process that is no longer used by formal gold mining companies, but from mercury in the ore that has followed gold through the leaching and precipitation processes.
Nitric acid or forced air oven oxidation can also be used to dissolve iron from the electrowinning cathodes before smelting. Gravity concentrates can often contain high grinding steel contents, and so their removal using shaking tables or magnets is used before smelting. During smelting iron can be oxidized using nitre. Excessive use of nitre will corrode the smelting pot, increasing both maintenance costs and the risk of catastrophic leaks (known as run-aways, or holes in the pot through which the molten charge is lost).
Gold parting is primarily the removing of silver from gold and therefore increasing the purity of gold. The parting of gold from silver has been done since ancient times starting in Lydia in the 6th century BC. Various techniques have been practised; salt cementation from ancient times, parting using distilled mineral acids from medieval times, and in modern times using chlorination using the Miller process and electrolysis using the Wohlwill process.