Gold in Seawater

There is gold in seawater and people have been trying for a century and a half to figure out how to profitably extract it – including a Nova Scotian named Andrew Deal.

All gold on Earth formed billions of years ago in stars that over-heated and blew up. Gold formed in the heat of the explosions and then floated around space. As rock, dust and other materials came together to form Earth 4.6 billion years ago, gold was distributed around the planet. Just as all rock contains at least some tiny amount of gold, so does virtually all water.

British chemist Edward Sonstadt discovered that there is gold in seawater in 1872. There is an estimated 13 billionths of a gram of dissolved gold in each litre of seawater, a total of about 20 million tons of gold in the oceans, according to the US National Ocean Service.

In 1902, Andrew Deal, of Fairview, Halifax County, worked as a marine engineer on the West India shipping route. The ships used evaporators to desalinate seawater so it could be used in the ships' boilers.

Deal later wrote in 1938 that this process caused scale to form on the evaporator coils. The scale had to be chipped off with a hammer.

In 1903-04, Deal worked as a mechanic doing general repairs at the Dufferin gold mine in Halifax County ( In that role, he would often chat with the mine’s assayer, the scientist who analysed the mine’s extracted rock: “The Assayer said gold can be got any place out of the earth, but the trouble was to get it in paying quantities.” (Over a century later, this still succinctly describes the challenge of finding economically viable mineral deposits, including gold deposits.)

This conversation led to Deal and the assayer testing ten pounds of scale from evaporator coils. The small test produced 27 milligrams of gold, according to Deal.

Deal then wondered whether gold was left on mud flats as seawater evaporated at low tide. He went to Beaver Harbour, about ten miles from the Dufferin mine, and got a mud sample from the shore. Deal wrote that the sample produced “four pennyweight of gold and one half ounce of silver per ton.” (One pennyweight is 1.5 grams so four pennyweight is six grams.) Like gold, silver and many other minerals and metals are also dissolved in water, usually in tiny amounts.

Deal wondered if the Beaver Harbour sample might have elevated levels of gold because it was close to a gold district, so he also got mud samples from various areas around the Bay of Fundy. He bored holes 12-feet-deep at low tide and tested them back in Dufferin. He found that they contained the same four pennyweights of gold and a half ounce of silver per ton that his Beaver Harbour sample produced.

He then took a sample to Mason and Mason, assayers based in the Queen building in Halifax (1695 Hollis St. at the corner of Prince and Hollis). They also found the same amount of gold and silver.

Deal claimed in 1938 to have done over one hundred assays and that they all produced the same result.

Deal believed he could extract mud from the Bay of Fundy at low tide, and that the world’s highest tides would constantly bring in fresh mud. By this theory, his supply of mud would be endless.

However, testing a sample is one thing but devising a method of processing the mud commercially is another. In other words, could he extract the gold from the mud profitably?

Deal spent years trying various processes but was never able to extract gold from the mud in a way that was cost-efficient.

In fairness to him, no one else has achieved it either. Any method devised to extract gold from seawater has cost more than the value of the gold extracted or otherwise not been practical on a commercial scale. The 20 million tons of gold dissolved in the oceans are still beyond our reach.

While Andrew Deal’s attempts to extract gold from seawater seem to have been legitimate, there have been a number of scam artists who have claimed to have the secret.

Likely the first such example was New England pastor Prescott Ford Jernegan, who claimed in 1897 to have invented a “Gold Accumulator” that could suck gold from seawater via a process involving specially treated mercury and electricity. Jernegan said the idea came to him in a heaven-sent dream.

He started the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company and by 1898 had raised about $1 million from investors. He built a plant in Lubec, Maine, that employed 100 people.

Unfortunately, it was a hoax. Jernegan had his business partner, Charles Fisher, a trained scuba diver, add small amounts of gold to the accumulators underwater to attract investors. When suspicions about the operation grew, Jernegan fled to Europe with his family and Fisher disappeared and was never heard from again. Most of the investors’ money was never recovered.