Scientists have discovered a new financially viable and environmentally friendly way to recover and recycle gold from electronic waste, an approach that could revolutionise the industry and be a veritable gold mine.
“We’ve found a simple, cheap and environmentally benign solution that extracts gold in seconds, and can be recycled and reused,” said Stephen Foley, professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.
“This could change the gold industry,” said Foley.
The biggest issue with gold is it is one of the least reactive chemical elements, making it difficult to dissolve, Foley explained.
The common practice of mining for gold creates environmental issues because it requires large amounts of sodium cyanide.
Meanwhile, recycling gold from electronic scraps like computer chips and circuits involves processes that are costly and have environmental implications.
With lower toxicity, cheaper cost and quicker extraction, the team has discovered an approach that could revolutionise the industry and be a veritable gold mine, researchers said.
“The environmental effects of current practices can be devastating,” said Foley, noting that the world produces more than 50 million tonnes of electronic waste per year and 80 per cent of that winds up in landfills.
What Foley, along with research associate Loghman Moradi and PhD student Hiwa Salimi, have discovered is a process using a solution – acetic acid combined with very small amounts of an oxidant and another acid – that extracts gold efficiently and effectively without the environmental concerns of current industry practices.
In this technique, the gold extraction is done under mild conditions, while the solution dissolves gold at the fastest rate ever recorded.
“Gold is stripped out from circuits in about 10 seconds, leaving the other metals intact,” Foley said.
He said it requires 5,000 litres of aqua regia (a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid) to extract one kilogramme of gold from printed circuit boards, none of which can be recycled.
With the new solution, one kilogramme of gold can be extracted using only 100 litres of solution, all of which can be recycled over again. The overall cost of this solution is only 50 cents a litre.
The next step for the team is to move the process into large-scale applications for gold recycling.