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Old 08-09-23, 04:17   #1
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Movies Your Old Laptops & Phones are GOLD Mines

The UK Royal Mint Has Found a New Way to Extract Precious Metals...

They are Hidden in Laptops and Phones AND Reduce Our Reliance on Raw Materials.

BBC 8 SEP 2023

Every year we throw away millions of tons of electronic waste – old computers, mobile phones, televisions.

All of them have circuit boards in them.

Now the Royal Mint has found a way to turn them into gold, which they’re planning to use to make commemorative coins.

BBC Science Editor Rebecca Morelle has been to their factory in Llantrisant, in South Wales to find out how it's going to be done.

Through security, equipped with a pair of safety glasses and a white lab coat, I'm taken behind the scenes at the Royal Mint near Cardiff, South Wales – a place that's world-renowned for making billions of coins for more than 30 nations. For two years, the Royal Mint, the UK's official coin producer, has been developing a mysterious new way to recover metals from electronic waste.

As I walk into her small demo laboratory, Hayley Messenger, a chemist specialising in sustainable precious metals, explains why nothing here is labelled: "Everything is a secret!" she says, pouring a '"magic green solution" into a one-litre-capacity (35oz) glass flask of fragmented circuit boards.

She and a team of chemists and chemical analysts, together with Canadian start-up Excir, have invented and patented a clean, energy-efficient way which they claim extracts 99% of gold from the printed circuit boards found inside discarded laptops and old mobile phones.

Later this year, the Royal Mint is opening a new multi-million-pound factory which will be able to process 90 tonnes of circuit boards per week once fully operational, recovering hundreds of kilogrammes of gold every year.

When the luminous mixture starts to fizz, Messenger screws the lid on, then places the flask on a tumbling machine to shake the contents. In just four minutes, any gold dissolves and leaches out into the liquid.

"This all happens at room temperature and it's very quick," says Messenger who explains that this chemical solution gets reused up to 20 times, with the concentration of dissolved gold increasing each time.

When another mystery solution is added, the gold becomes solid metal again. This powder is filtered out and melted down in a furnace into thumbnail-sized nuggets. These nuggets can then be crafted into pendant necklaces, earrings and cufflinks. But the real beauty of these recycled precious metals lies in the scalability of this super streamlined chemical process.

The Royal Mint has licensed chemical technology to extract gold from circuit boards found inside discarded laptops and old mobile phones

A Chemical Solution

E-waste (also known as waste electrical and electronic equipment or WEEE) is the world's fastest-growing waste stream. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, an estimated 50 million tonnes of e-waste is produced globally every year, weighing more than all of the commercial airliners ever made.

But only 20% of that is formally recycled, and most gets thrown away and either sent to landfill or incinerated. Last year a study by price comparison service USwitch found that the UK produced the second largest amount of e-waste per person, with Norway ranking top and the US in eighth position.

As demand for more portable devices and fast electronics grows, so too will the e-waste mountain. In 2019, the World Economic Forum estimated that by 2050, annual e-waste production will more than double to 120 million tonnes.

Like all critical raw materials, gold is a finite resource, yet 7% of the world's gold is currently sitting in disused electronics. Gold extraction usually involves exporting devices to the EU or Asia where e-waste is smelted down at extremely high temperatures in a very crude and carbon-intensive process.

"We want to recover as much of the precious metals as we can from things which are currently waste," says Messenger. "Our focus is on doing this sustainably within the UK, using a process that's effective at room temperature while producing a lot less greenhouse gas emissions than smelting."

"If we're producing the waste, it should be our responsibility to sort it, we shouldn't be shipping it to another country to sort it for us," says Mark Loveridge, commercial director at the Royal Mint. He says that developing e-waste supply chains around localised recycling plants would dramatically cut the waste miles required to transport discarded electronics by sea, air and road, and the Royal Mint is already in talks with partners around the world with the ambition to globalise this technology.

Swapping my lab coat for an orange hard hat, high-vis jacket and black, steel-toe-capped boots, I head to the new processing plant. Dozens of huge dumpy bags are stacked up in the far corner of this 3,000 sq m (32,292 sq ft) factory, each filled with colourful circuit boards. These have been removed from laptops and mobile phones, and delivered to the factory by a network of 50 e-waste suppliers around the country.

On arrival, circuit boards are inspected and tipped into a large silver hopper which funnels this raw material into a huge multi-coloured machine. Tony Baker, director of manufacturing innovation who is overseeing the installation of this plant, explains that as circuit boards get mechanically separated and broken up, any non-gold components are kept to one side, while any gold-bearing parts such as USB ports are digitally detected and sent to a 500-litre (110 gallon) reactor. Here, the "magic green solution" gets added on a much larger scale, gold sand is extracted and, again, nuggets are produced.

Because so much non-gold is removed at the start, the chemical processing is only applied to fragments containing gold, as Baker explains. The raw material used by the Royal Mint is comprised of circuit boards, rather than entire laptops or whole mobile phones. Once the gold has been extracted, the leftover non-gold components are all sent off to different parts of the supply chain for reuse, so nothing gets wasted. The gold content varies between 60 parts per million to 900 parts per million, depending on the feedstock, according to Loveridge.

The gold nuggets extracted from electronic waste are crafted into bracelets, necklaces and cufflinks

While currently, the Royal Mint's waste reprocessing plant just specialises in gold recycling at a relatively small scale, the ambition is to eventually branch out and recover other precious metals from the same circuit board raw material as this system expands. And when any remaining plastic or fibreglass is processed, some of the energy produced is converted into synthetic gas that is fed into the Mint's own local energy plant – so it will be used directly to generate electricity and power on-site.

This is part of the company's plan to generate 70% of the power required to run the entire manufacturing site through renewables such as solar, wind, combined heat and power plus battery storage.

If the Excir chemistry can be adapted to recover a wider variety of precious metals, and if the entire system can run on locally produced renewables, there's scope to replicate this at other refineries around the country in a low-impact way and divert e-waste before it gets exported. The biggest challenge is to ensure that this network of e-waste suppliers and processors grows in a way that prioritises and incentivises reuse close to home, says Loveridge.

"The more you can separate at the start, the less effort you have to put in, the purer it is and the better value we get for it," says Baker. "We require the precious metals – that's very important as a material source for us – but it's not just about taking the metal out and discarding the rest. We wanted to find a home for every single part of these circuit boards."

Once the gold has been removed, what remains gets ground into fine particles with the non-gold e-waste. It's then split into different fractions. Tubs of copper concentrate, steel and tin are sold and sent off to specialist recyclers for reuse, while the remaining char from processing any leftover fibreglass goes to a local cement works. The leach solution used in the chemical process is also sent off for recycling once it's been reused up to 20 times.

Once fully operational, zero waste will be the goal, says Loveridge.

Urban mining – recovering precious metals from existing waste products such as these circuit boards – is a burgeoning trend and there's certainly plenty of e-waste available.

Kate Hinton, external relations lead at Material Focus, the non-profit behind the Recycle Your Electricals campaign, points out that UK households are hoarding 527 million small old electricals, including 31 million old laptops, weighing around 190,000 tonnes. In the US, mobile phones containing $60m (£47m) worth of gold and silver are thrown out annually.

A 2022 report by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory calculated that more than one billion electronic devices could be discarded annually in the US a decade from now – and that these electronics could become a source of roughly half the amount of gold that is currently mined there.

Experts argue metals are "eminently recyclable", especially because the environmental cost of mining ore to get just a tiny amount of gold is enormous.

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