Is the next major gold find in a landfill -- or more appropriately electronic waste recycling facility -- near you?
Electronic waste accounts for an estimated 7 percent of all the world's gold. All that gold could be salvaged from old phones in massive quantities, to the tune of 330 tons (300 metric tons) every year, using a simple chemical extraction process developed by British and American scientists.
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The new process isn't meant to set off some kind of gold rush for discarded electronics. Instead, it promises to reduce of the environmental impact of both gold mining and e-waste.
Through their study, the researchers discovered a nontoxic chemical compound, a simple primary amide, that could be used to recover gold in more safe and effective manner than current methods.
Here's how it works: Circuit boards are first placed into an acid to dissolve away the metal in them. A liquid containing the compound is then applied, and that chemical separates the gold from the other metals in the mixture. The study detailing the process was published in the journal Angewandte Chemie.
The research could pave the way for a large-scale, low-cost, efficient and environmentally friendly means of recovering gold from cell phones and other electronics.
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Current methods of extracting the precious metal from abandoned devices are inefficient and rely on toxic chemicals such as cyanide. But the alternative to recycling is even more damaging both to the environment and potentially to human health.
Phones that aren't recycled also produce toxic byproducts. E-waste accounts for just 2 percent of the trash dumped in landfills, but represents 70 percent of heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, found at these sites.
Every year, approximately 150 million cell phones are discarded in the United States, with Americans replacing their phones an average of once every two years or so. But only about 12.5 percent of e-waste is recycled, with most instead going to the dump.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), every million cell phones recycled yields 75 pounds (34 kilograms) of gold, in addition to 35,000 pounds (15,876 kilograms) of copper, 772 pounds of silver (350 kilograms) and 33 pounds of paladium (15 kilograms). Not too shabby for what would otherwise be a massive pile of toxic waste.
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