Extracting Gold from Cell Phones

November 11, 2014

Just 41 mobile phones — that’s all it takes to get 1 gram of gold. While this may seem like a mundane fact to the average reader, the significance is clear for those looking to profit from the increasingly lucrative notion of extracting gold from cell phones. The bottom line is that gold can turn up in the most peculiar places, including e-waste, and more and more people are starting to pay attention.

In fact, mining e-waste could be one of the most profitable directions for electronics recycling to take in the coming years. According to EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik, the business case for extracting gold from cell phones is clear. In July, while addressing various waste issues, the commissioner was quick to highlight the financial benefits of recycling cell phones while pointing out the obvious environmental advantages of recycling in general.

recycling-gold.jpgIndeed, a recent UN report on electronic waste also highlighted the significance of gold extraction. According to the report, 1 metric ton of cell phone handsets could yield 340 grams of gold — enough to bring in a sizable profit for anyone with the proper resources for handling large-scale recycling and extracting precious metals from mobile phones.

There is no question that plenty of cell phone waste is available. Across the world, 1.2 billion mobile phones were sold in 2007. Such enormous numbers of handsets creates both a demand for metals needed to manufacturer the phones as well as a large supply of e-waste from which gold and other precious metals may be extracted.

What this means is that gold extraction is poised to take the e-cycling world by storm. This makes it even more appropriate to explore the issues and details surrounding gold extraction from cell phones and to take a look at where new innovation will put us in the years ahead.

Making the case for gold extraction and proper e-waste recycling

It should be noted that just one cell phone handset usually produces a small of amount of actual monetary value in gold. This is because the average handset contains only about 24 milligrams of gold. At today's gold prices, that could yield less than $2, but on a large scale, the amounts do escalate.

Perhaps even more sustainable than gold extraction for monetary purposes is the case for zero-waste societies, which Potocnik raised during his recent speech. The idea of a circular economy envisions eliminating waste all together by pumping precious metals and other significantly useful recycling and extraction byproducts back into industries that need them most.

The circular economy idea is just one of the ways that gold extraction from cell phones can be utilized to lead the innovation surrounding e-waste recycling. Even more headway is being made in terms of the actual gold-extraction process itself.

Mechanics of gold extraction from cell phones

Removing gold from cell phone handsets can be challenging. The main issues involve utilizing better ways to protect the environment. Traditionally, the materials used to separate the hardware and plastics in cell phones from the gold can be toxic and extremely dangerous.

Many countries have found this out the hard way. In China and in India, for example, the plight of a number of disastrously polluted ecosystems is well known. This is partly due to a number of informal recycling methods employed by lay recyclers and trash pickers struggling to make ends meet by cashing in on the precious metals contained in e-waste.

Since these methods are highly unregulated, the effects on the environment have been devastating. In fact, in certain regions of China, entire land areas have been completely destroyed, depleting the vitality of soil and poisoning water systems in the process.

The chemicals used in gold extraction from cell phones range from mildly dangerous to extremely hazardous. Most commonly, cyanide is used. In a process called cyanide recovery, cyanide is added to a water base and filtered with zinc dust to aid in the extraction. The method is straightforward but potentially very dangerous, as cyanide is a poisonous toxin.

The problem with the dexterity of such methods is twofold. First, there is the issue of scale. Profitable gold extraction from cell phones must take place on a large scale, and extracting from more cell phones of course means using more cyanide.

Disposal is another issue. Once the gold is extracted, dumping the cyanide-water solution should be done with care, but often is not. In informal recycling sectors, the material is usually discarded in local streams, rivers or lakes, causing harmful pollution and posing health risks to residents.

Cyanide is not the only chemical extractor that can be used to recover gold from cell phones. Other toxic chemicals like nitric acid can also be employed for adequate results, but the environmental concerns are the same. Such chemical methods have created a demand for sustainable alternatives that can effectively address the environmental dangers inherent in gold extraction from cell phones.

Innovative methods of gold extraction from cell phones

In light of the dangers present, researchers are constantly searching for ways to curtail the potential damage of chemical gold extraction. One of the most interesting of these methods involves the use of fungi to filter out gold from handsets and other electronics.

One other approach deals with improving phone manufacturing. The idea is that manufacturing phones that age better or last longer can keep phones out of the discard pile in the first place.

A U.K.-based initiative called CLEVER has produced a phone that boasts replaceable parts and a circuit board capable of dissolving under far less toxic conditions than traditional methods. The CLEVER prototype proposes the use of cellulose bases for cell phone circuit boards that could be dissolved using enzymes to recover gold and other precious metals.

Gold extraction from cell phones: A trend on the rise

A simple Google search reveals the increasing popularity of step-by-step guides for gold extraction from cell phones and other electronic devices. Whether those methods are safe or not, the sheer ubiquity of information surrounding this topic is a good indication that we could see more gold recovery in the coming years.

With government lawmakers and researchers searching for increasingly innovative ways to perfect the process, gold recovery from cell phones could be the next wave of viable and sustainable ways to decrease and eventually eliminate e-waste on a global scale.