Striking Gold in Cell Phones

June 3, 2010

In an age of "new every two" cellular device upgrading (if you can even hold out that long), there is a growing number of cell phones being tossed away and quickly forgotten about. Despite the ability to simply reuse these devices, each one can strike gold — literally — with the process known as urban mining.

In terms of e-waste, cell phones hold some of the most valuable bang for the buck. Chock full of bits of gold, silver and copper, cell phones offer easy extraction and reuse of these valuable materials, and with technology rapidly advancing, there is no shortage in sight. Gold, which has rapidly increased in value during the past few years, is of particular interest to companies looking to cash in on e-waste extraction.

The reason for this surplus is simple: Cell phone manufacturers are increasingly turning to gold as a conductor element in their high-tech circuit boards instead of the less conductive copper.

Gold, in particular, is easily extractable in these devices, so much that it is possible to extract more gold per ton of cell phones than per ton of actual ore. Per ton, gold ore yields approximately 5 grams (0.18 ounces) of gold. Per ton of recovered cell phone circuitry, it is possible to yield up to 150 grams (5.3 ounces) of gold.

In turn, jewelers and yes, electronics manufacturers are rapidly trying to get their hands on this re-purposed precious metal, which is typically melted down into its pure state following extraction from the mobile device.

One refinery in Japan is picking apart between 10,000 and 20,000 cell units every month. Another company in Tokyo is melting at least 7,000 ounces of gold per month just from cell phone mining and extraction.

Still, with only 10-20% of cell phone users opting to throw their old devices away, chances are good that a lot of precious metal is hiding in cabinets, drawers and closets around the world.