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Sodium cyanide is a white solid that looks like confectioners sugar.

It will be converted to hydrocyanic acid, HCN, if it contacts acid.

Cyanide is destroyed by many naturally occurring chemicals as well as by oxidizing agents such
as clorox.

Cyanide is destroyed by sodium thiosulfate or sodium nitrite.

An average fatal dose of HCN is about 50-60 milligrams.

Cyanide dissolves both gold and silver from alkaline solution.

Cyanide is a very "clean" extraction system, as it does not extract many of the base metals such
as iron. This is in contrast to halide extraction, which dissolves large quantities of iron,
aluminum, and other metals.

Just be aware that frequently the amount of acid or base that you must add to your reaction will
not be what you expect.

Cyanide Extraction of Gold and Silver


First thing to consider is what sort of chemicals, facilities, and equipment that you will need.
You will need a supply of Sodium cyanide. You will need a much larger supply of slaked lime
(calcium hydroxide). Do not underestimate the amount that you need. Its cheap and you do not
want to start an extraction and run out of lime. Your material could start to go acidic and you
would be caught with no alkali to counteract the acid. This could be bad because if the solution
should become acid enough the cyanide would be released into the air as HCN and your values
would fall out of solution. With PH paper you will be operating in the range of 9-12.

It would be prudent to have a supply of sodium thiosulfate for just such an emergency. If things
start to get out of hand just dump in an excess. Your values will still fall out of solution but you
will have destroyed the cyanide in the extraction vessel and precluded complaints etc. Its just
good procedure. You will probably never have occasion to use it.

You will need something to keep the solution stirred, agitated, mixed and aerated. On a very
small scale such as a quart to a gallon size jug you can probably do it by hand. Just shake or stir
the material every few minutes. In somewhat larger scale extractions I recommend a cement
mixer of a size appropriate to the amount of material to be treated. On a cement mixer scale you
might also have to adjust the cyanide concentration to maintain its concentration at about 0.4%.
For this you will have to determine the amount of cyanide present in solution. This is usually
done by a simple titration of the extracting liquid and addition of cyanide as it is used up in the
reaction. If any of you should need a procedure to accomplish this please let me know. I will try
to modify this page to include a section on determination of cyanide in solution. Because this site
is primarily for the small operator, we are not going to consider large scale or heap-leaching at
this time.
You will need some sort of filter to separate the solids from the pregnant (gold-bearing) solution.
For a small batch, you can utilize coffee filters and a funnel. There are things called "filter
funnels" which are much more efficient than a standard smooth walled funnel. The filter funnel
simply has a series of grooves cut from the rim of the funnel down to the spout. These grooves
serve as channels for the liquid to escape through.

After all, if everything starts to go wrong you can just throw the whole thing into a bucket of
thiosulfate solution. Remember, anytime that you are doing an extraction in a closed vessel you
should loosen the top occasionally to relieve internal pressure and allow oxygen to enter. There
must be oxygen present or no gold/silver will be dissolved.

We are going to run a sample to see if there is enough really fine gold present to go after it on a
larger scale. Start by dissolving about 10 grams of lime in one liter of water. If it doesnt all
dissolve, not to worry. Now weigh out 4 grams of sodium cyanide and add it to the lime solution
and allow it to dissolve. Next, fill your container to about 1/3 full with ore. This should be
crushed so that there are no large rocks etc. Add enough of the cyanide solution to make thin
slurry. The container should not be more than 2/3 full. Now you start mixing. You should now
start to use your pH paper immediately. The first reading should be rather high 11 or 12. Within
a very short time, no more than a minute, test it again. The pH will probably be falling. If so, add
lime with stirring and continue to monitor the pH. You want the pH to stay close to11. After a
few minutes the pH will begin to stabilize and you wont have to stay on top of it as in the
beginning. DO NOT LET THE pH DROP BELOW 8!!!

Another very important thing is that you must wash the solids (pulp) several times to remove all
the values. After the first pregnant solution has been recovered, wash the pulp with an equal
volume of your cyanide/lime solution that has been diluted 1/10 with water. You should wash the
pulp this way three times. Combine all the liquid. This pregnant solution should have the values
in solution.

Recovering values
There are numerous ways to recover the values from pregnant solutions. We will not attempt to
cover them all, just the ones that seem practicable for our purposes.

Activated carbon. You must use activated carbon. Ground up charcoal briquettes will not work.
Yes, you can make your own carbon but its a grunt and not worth the trouble. Buy or borrow it.
You can adsorb the values two ways. First and most efficient is "column adsorption". In this
method the carbon is slurried into a column of plastic or other material and the pregnant solution
allowed to flow through it. The values should remain stuck to the column. There are ways to
"strip" the column with chemicals but it is frequently unreliable and you usually dont know if
you recovered all the values or not. In most cases it is probably better to simply burn the carbon
to ash and deal with that.

Ion Exchange resin. This is usually my preferred method. This stuff will adsorb like a thousand
times more values/unit weight than carbon. It is much more reliable and doesnt vary from batch
to batch as carbon does. This is the stuff that they use in water softeners and de-ionizers to
produce pure water. Did you know that most "distilled" water is not distilled at all, its usually
de-ionized. The one you want to catch gold/silver is a weak base, anionic resin. Im sure you
could get it from a local water processor. Treat it just like it was carbon. Like carbon it can be
stripped and re-used. If you have really loaded a lot of gold on it, like carbon, I think its best to
simply burn it. Remember, with the resin you dont need much, a very small column will suffice.
You can test to know when the column is saturated and will adsorb no more values. This will
work for carbon or resin. Catch a little of the column effluent in a test tube or some such and add
a little table salt dissolved in weak (1-5 %) nitric acid. If you get a white cloud of silver chloride,
your column is saturated and is about to start losing gold. Silver always "breaks through" a
column before the gold does.

Cementation. This is a tried and true method for recovering values dissolved in almost anything
except aqua regia. The term "cementation" refers to the process of replacing the dissolved gold
with a base metal resulting in the precipitation of the values. Historically, this process utilized
zinc. The reason was simple, it works, and at that time zinc was the cheapest metal in the world.
There were two basic systems used. The "zinc box" was a wooden box filled with "mossy zinc" a
sort of shredded zinc, through which the value bearing solution was allowed to flow. This was a
very efficient method because it presented a very large surface area of zinc so that the reaction
time was very fast. As the zinc dissolved and replaced the gold/silver in solution the values
precipitated to the bottom of the box where they could be periodically recovered as a black-
brown paste. The other way was to set up a box is with zinc plates arranged so that the flowing
liquid ran over one plate and under the next. This works perfectly well but was a bit slower than
the previous method. The third method, which was used when you had the pregnant solution in a
batch rather than a stream, was to simply add small chunks of zinc or powdered zinc to the
solution and allow the values to settle out. You can substitute aluminum for the zinc. These
"cementation slimes" will contain large quantities, sometimes as much as 75% of the cementing
metal but that is easily removed by other means or in the smelting process. It is usually better to
remove these contaminating metals. If you should smelt that much zinc all at once it could create
a large cloud of zinc vapor that is unnecessary. The usual method of cleaning up these cementing
slimes is to treat the slime with dilute sulfuric acid until most of the metals have dissolved in the
acid, leaving your gold behind in the remaining insoluble slime. This can now be smelted with
less danger of overexposure to metal vapors.

Cyanide in Solution Titration

Now, we are going to do the same thing to determine how much free cyanide is present in any
solution of interest to us. I know someone is going to ask, "free cyanide, is that different from
any other kind"? Well yeah, it is. "Free cyanide" is the cyanide in the solution that is not tied up
by any metal or other chemical. It is "free" to react with gold or silver. Maybe "free cyanide"
could mean the cyanide that the government/do-gooder complex hasnt managed to track down
and throw in jail yet.

Silver does react with cyanide to produce a water-soluble complex. However, if there is no "free
cyanide" in solution the complex changes from potassium silver cyanide, KAgCN, to silver
cyanide, Ag (CN) 2. The former is soluble (will dissolve) in water, the latter will not. This fact
gives us the means to skin this cat too.

We are going on a chemo-trip that will allow you to determine how much cyanide is in any
solution that you might run into. If you think you neighbor is dumping cyanide in the storm
gutter in front of you house, you can catch him! For this titration you will need a few items from
your scientific supply source. You will need a "burette" of either 25 or 50 cc capacity. This
should be graduated in 0.1cc increments. This item is simply a long glass or clear plastic tube,
accurately graduated, with a stopcock at the bottom so that you can control the flow of liquid
from the tube. You will need an Erlenmeyer flask of 250-500 cc capacity. Yeah, you could use
some other clear container but everyone really ought to have a couple of these anyway. You
really should have 100 or 250 ml graduated cylinder. These are things you should have in the
basement anyway. You will find them useful for many purposes. You will need some Silver
Nitrate in crystal form. You could make it, but better to buy a little from scientific supply or from
local drugstore.

Now, probably the most difficult part, you must weigh out exactly 13.07 grams of Silver Nitrate.
This is the critical step because any error you make here will be magnified in your final results.
This is your "standard Silver Nitrate solution" that you will be using for a long time. Now you
put this in a container and add distilled or de-ionized water to exactly 1 liter or 1000 cc. Put this
solution in a tightly stoppered bottle. A dark bottle is best but you can darken the bottle by
wrapping it with black electricians tape. Dont forget the bottom. You are doing this because
silver nitrate is a little unstable in the presence of light.

Now, we are going to titrate some cyanide solution. I guess you have a cement mixer running
with some good concentrates in it and we have to be sure that the cyanide concentration stays
about where we want it. Take out a sample and filter it through a coffee filter. Take exactly
100cc of this filtrate and put it in the flask that you bought, or you favorite hi-ball glass if you
insist. Fill the burette to above the "zero" mark with the Silver Nitrate solution. Now, carefully
turn the stopcock and let the Silver solution run out until the liquid is at the zero level. Now we
are ready to get it done.

There is a little art to titrating. You should be able to swish the CN solution in the flask in a
circular motion while allowing the Silver Nitrate to slowly drip into it. Sort of like rubbing your
stomach and patting your head at the same time. If it seems awkward, not to worry, you aint a
pro yet. It will work; its just that a pro will do it a whole lot faster than you. Now to the guts of
the thing. Just like the hearing examiner, you are looking for something to happen, the "end
point". In this case the end-point will be when you see a permanent white precipitate (cloud)
form. You will probably see a white precipitate form and in a second or two, disappear. This is
not what you are looking for but it is an indication that you are getting close, so go careful. You
will find a point at which 1 drop of Silver solution will make a cloud that does not dissolve.
STOP! This is the end-point that you are looking for.

Now, you simply read off the burette how many ml (cc) of silver solution that it took to get to the
end-point. Due to some manipulation that I did for you that you didnt even know about, the ml
of silver solution that you used divided by ten will equal the percent of free cyanide in your
cement mixer solution. If it is getting low, add a little more cyanide, etc.

I know that you were thinking about things like "why did this character tell us to weigh out a
screwball amount of Silver Nitrate like 13.07 gr.". Well, due to the magic of another science,
mathematics, I was able to convert the numbers from molar values into something that would be
easier for you to handle. Dont you admire me for that? Sure you do! Mathematics aint
Basement Chemistry, but its sort of handy to have around sometimes.

Just so you will understand what went on in this titration, Im going to explain it (I hope) in
chemical terms. After all, If someone should stop you on the street and ask "sir, could you
explain to me how to titrate cyanide with Silver Nitrate", You would, of course be able to tell
him more than he ever wanted to know about the subject. That, by the way, is the secret to being
an expert authority on any subject. When someone even mentions a subject, you jump in and tell
him or her so much that they run off screaming into the night. Now you are the expert!

If we have a reaction going we would expect to have some gold and silver reacted with cyanide.
Might be some other metals reacted also. This is not what we are concerned with. This is cyanide
but it has already captured something. We are more concerned with whether or not we have
enough cyanide left to get the rest of the precious metals dissolved. Free cyanide! When we
titrate the solution, we are adding Silver Nitrate. We know that Silver reacts with cyanide to
produce a water-soluble salt like potassium silver cyanide, KagCN. As we titrate the unknown
solution with silver we are producing this compound. When the Cyanide is all used up we start to
make Silver Cyanide, AgCN. This chemical is not soluble in water and will precipitate as a white
cloud. This is our end-point and it indicates the point at which there is no more free cyanide in
the solution. The amount of silver needed to reach this end-point tells us exactly how much
cyanide was in the solution.