According to a recent article in Wired magazine, a body could be worth up to $45 million — Calculated by selling the bone marrow, DNA, lungs, kidneys, heart … as components.
What about the value of a body based around just the chemical elements that make up a corpse?
Let’s assume we possess a Superb Person Atomizing Machine (SPAM for short); a Sweeney Todd like device that can reduce a body to its elemental components. We throw a body in the top, press a red button, and out of the far end comes a pile of its elemental constituents. What would come out? (Remember, we’re talking about reducing our body to its elemental components, not compounds, so whilst a body might be 61% water, we’re not looking to get H2O out of the far end, we’re looking to split this into Hydrogen and Oxygen.)
A quick search of Wikipedia gives us the percentage of elements that make up the human body. These are shown in the table below.
The first column shows the chemical symbol and the second column the element name. The percentage column gives the percentage of a typical body that this element represents (by mass).
By mass, human cells consist of 65–90% water and also a significant portion of the body is composed of Carbon-containing organic molecules. Oxygen therefore contributes a majority of a human body's mass, followed by Carbon. (Because of its low atomic weight, even though 63% of the atoms in a body are Hydrogren, this equates to just 10% of the mass of a body).
99% of the mass of the human body is made up of the six elements: Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Calcium, and Phosphorus.
I’m going to base my calculation of the body value using the mass of its constituent elements (most retailers buy and sell things by weight, not the number of moles). I’m also going to use Metric numbers because, well, it’s pretty much the standard for the entire globe, and I like standards. With the exception of the USA, pretty much every other place in the World has gone metric. Need a diagram to explain? The map below shows all the countries that do not use the metric system. America, it’s time to change.
For my calculations, I assumed our victim has a mass of 80Kg (that’s approx 176lbs for any metric challenged people still reading and not offended by my comment above). I chose this figured based on average figures I could find on the web. If you’re lighter or heavier than this, and want to calculate your own “net worth” (though maybe some people would classify this calculation as “gross”), then you can simply scale-up or down the final result proportional to your own mass.
An estimate of the cost of chemical elements is, surprisingly, difficult to obtain. Some chemicals are sold in bulk and prices can be obtained by scaling these down. Other elements are more specialised and I could only find prices for laboratory grade supplies, and even these can come in a wide variety of purities with a correspondingly wide range of prices. (Even if I'm out by an order of magnitude on some of the more obscure elements, as you can see below, it would make very little difference to the overall calculation as the quantity of these elments in the body is so microscopic).
The table below extends the previous table by adding two columns: A cost (per Kg) of obtaining the element in question, and a value column which is the product of the mass of that element in the body multiplied by the cost of that element.
The most abudant elements in the body are pretty cheap, so they contribute very little to the value of a body. Similarly, the valuable (expensive) elements, such as Gold occur in such trace quantities that their contribution to the overall sum is noise.
The biggest contributors to the value of the body appear to be the Alkali Metals – Lithium, Sodium, Potassium, Rubidium and Caesium. Potassium appears to be the single most 'valuable' element in the body because it lies at the sweet-spot of being both reasonable common and reasonably expensive. (Hydrogen also is classified as an Alkali Metal because of its lonely electron in the outside shell, and because of the high volume of the element in the body it also makes a non-negligable contribution to the value).
[I suspect the high purchase cost of the Alkali elements is related to the fact of how much effort is needed to seperate them from the compounds they occur in, and not the rareness that they occur in the Earth, so it's not really fair to compare these costs to the costs against the magical SPAM machine which will perform the job without factoring this in, but hey, this is my blog – if you object, write your own!]
Summing up all the amounts in the Value column, we come to a grand total of just over $160.
You'd better keep eating those bananas!*
*They are a good source of Potassium.