Mike Satre is familiar with the image that probably pops into your head when you think of gold mining in Alaska:
“The old prospector with a pickaxe and a donkey.”
The gold-seeking sourdough certainly has a place in Alaska history. But metals and minerals are a far bigger part of the state’s story than the Klondike gold rush alone.
“Mining and using Alaska’s minerals has been happening for millennia,” said Satre, a geologist who now works in public affairs for Hecla’s Greens Creek Mine in his hometown of Juneau.
For thousands of years, Alaska Native people used jade and copper in tools and jewelry, Satre said. Today, Alaska’s five large metal mines -- Greens Creek, Red Dog, Fort Knox, Pogo and Kensington -- produce gold, silver, lead and zinc. And it’s serious business -- about $2.4 billion in estimated revenue last year, according to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
Minerals -- often shipped as concentrates or, in the case of gold, as partially refined doré bars -- now make up more than a third of Alaska’s total exports. And they almost certainly return to the state, transformed and put to use in everyday items.
“I think what Alaskans don’t necessarily recognize, and they should be really proud of, is that we have a history of responsibly producing the metals that the world needs here in Alaska,” Satre said. “The ability of people over millennia to find these materials that they need for their society, now our modern society -- that whole process just fascinates me, that we’ve figured that out over time.”
Even if you don’t work at an Alaska mine -- or know any of the approximately 4,500 people who do -- you’ve almost certainly encountered a product that may have been made using Alaska metals. Here’s a look at just a few of them.
“If you want to hold all of Alaska’s minerals in your hand, you just hold your smartphone,” Satre said. “It’s going to have everything we’re producing, plus minerals like copper that we have in abundance but aren’t mining. This is where everything’s being used.”
Gold, silver, zinc and even lead are used to build the world’s increasingly pocket-sized electronics. Even when the overall market for gold and silver is down, it continues to increase in the tech industry as consumers demand more and more memory in their devices. The precious metals don’t corrode, along with other qualities that make them ideal for use in electronics.
“They have excellent conductivity properties,” Satre said. “They’re extremely malleable.”
In 2016, Apple famously reported that it had recovered over a ton of gold from recycled iPhones and other products the previous year. Your run-of-the-mill smartphone has a higher concentration of precious metals than the average mine.
“If you have one ton of iPhones, you actually have more gold and silver … than in a ton of rock in the mines in Alaska,” Satre said.
When it comes to portable electricity, Alaska metals have a critical role to play.
“Zinc and lead are throughout our battery systems that we use,” Satre said.
Alkaline batteries -- like the ones powering your remote control and rattling around your junk drawer -- require zinc, while lead-acid batteries power everything from cars to electric wheelchairs to backup power systems.
“Lead-acid batteries are still so incredibly prevalent,” Satre said. “The primary use of lead is the standard lead-acid battery that you have in your car, you have in a boat, you have in an airplane.”
If graphite prospects near Nome are developed, Alaska could also be an important provider of the graphite that’s used in many lithium-ion batteries, he added. Electric cars, game consoles, smartphones, power tools, computers and even flashlights increasingly use these lightweight power sources.
Had an x-ray recently? Undergone a medical procedure? Alaska metals may have helped keep you healthy and safe.
“Silver in particular has natural anti-bacterial, anti-microbial properties that were recognized even back in the early days,” Satre said. “People realized if you used a silver-lined vessel or put a silver coin in water, it would keep it fresher longer.”
That, he added, makes silver a perfect choice for medical applications, from instruments to dressings to clothing.
“It helps to minimize the risk of infection,” Satre said.
Even lead plays a role in the medical field. Although 20th century science helped people understand that lead doesn’t belong in pipes or paint, its impenetrability means it can be helpful -- even life-saving -- in the right situation, such as when it’s used as shielding to protect care providers and patients from exposure to x-rays.
Low-emissions vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels -- more and more, average people are looking for ways to lessen their impact on the environment.
“Think of how many Alaskans are either living off the grid or trying to reduce their carbon footprint out there,” Satre said. “You look at how solar cells are used throughout the state.”
That wouldn’t be possible without the metals that are produced in Alaska, he said.
“Even as we’re transitioning to a green economy, a renewable economy, the basic building blocks of that economy are still produced in Alaska’s mines,” Satre said.
Globally, silver is seeing increased demand for green energy applications.
“Silver paste is one of the critical elements in producing these photovoltaic cells out there,” Satre said.
Alaska’s metals are likely back at work in the state getting eco-conscious drivers from place to place, too, in the batteries and systems powering hybrid and electric cars.
“Juneau ranks third in the nation in terms of electric vehicles per capita,” Satre said. “It makes perfect sense to have an electric vehicle here. That’s another place where lead, zinc (and) copper come to play, and then silver and gold for the high-end electronics.”
One of the most in-demand minerals for renewables is one that isn’t currently being mined in Alaska.
“It takes a lot of copper for renewable energy,” said Beki Toussaint, education program manager for Alaska Resource Education. “We’re going to see an exponential growth in demand for copper.”
Solar energy requires about five times as much copper as conventional energy systems to generate a kilowatt hour of electricity, she said. A large offshore wind farm needs about 10 times as much copper to produce the same kilowatt hour -- about 4.7 tons per turbine, according to the World Bank. And electric engines contain four times as much copper as combustion engines.
With renewables on the rise, experts estimate that copper demand could increase by as much as 50 percent over the next two decades. To meet it, the world will need to produce as much copper in that time as has been produced in the last 10,000 years.
Fighter jets, astronauts and more
The minerals mined in Alaska can turn up in some surprising places as well -- like your car, where the sensor that triggers your airbag is made of rust-proof gold. According to Toussaint, you’ll also find gold in the skies, coating the canopies of fighter jets like the F-22, and even in outer space. In addition to its conductive properties, gold provides some protection from solar radiation, so it’s used by NASA in a variety of ways, including as shielding on the helmets worn by astronauts.
“You can’t just wear sunglasses in space,” Toussaint said.
When it comes to Alaskans’ health and safety, though, it’s possible that nothing beats the state’s single largest export. Zinc can be found all over Alaska, from reinforced guardrails along the highway to the zinc plates on fishing boats that attract salt to protect their hulls from corrosion.
“It saves a lot of Alaskan lives,” said Toussaint, who called zinc a “hidden gem” of the state’s resource industry.
While zinc deficiency is rare in places where zinc-fortified foods are readily available, in some countries it’s a common cause of illness and even death. Teck, which operates Red Dog Mine, has partnered with UNICEF and other organizations to address zinc deficiency. The company says more than 140 million people have been served by its Zinc & Health program.
Alaska’s ‘complicated’ geology
Along with the silver, gold, zinc and lead being produced at its five major metal mines, Alaska is also rich in copper, coal, graphite and rare earth minerals, with additional deposits of metals and minerals ranging from jade to tin to platinum to uranium. And don’t forget oil and gas.
When it comes to geological diversity, it turns out size matters.
“It’s just so darn big,” Satre said. “When you have a land mass or a jurisdiction that is that large, your chance of having a multitude of mineral deposits significantly increases.”
The state’s tectonic history also plays a significant role, he added.
“Alaska is this fascinating geologic story,” Satre said. “Not all of Alaska was formed at the same time or even at the same place on the globe.”
Just how far-flung are the state’s rocks and hills? Researchers are now theorizing that the Brooks Range formed in Greenland and “rotated” into its current location. Or consider Southeast Alaska, which was formed by the meeting of the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate and then “slid into place,” Satre said. The result is a recipe for major geologic diversity, with many different kinds of rock and mineralization in one geographic area.
“When you go from island to island here in Southeast Alaska, you’re actually jumping across millions of years of history,” Satre said. “You have this complete variety of geologic processes. That whole process ends up concentrating metals.
“The geology is just so fascinating. We have complicated rocks.”
Presented by the Council of Alaska Producers, working to help Alaskans understand what mining contributes to our state’s economy and how Alaska’s modern mines operate in an environmentally safe and responsible manner.
This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Council of Alaska Producers. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.