Posted April 17, 2018 06:53:33
Sandia National Laboratories, in the US city of Albuquerque, is home to perhaps the world's tiniest gold mine.
Instead of digging gold out of the ground, researchers are stripping it from SIM cards using ultrasonic waves.
It may not seem like much at a glance, but, globally, about $20 billion of precious metals are wasted in old electronics each year.
That is according to Sandia National Laboratories' materials chemist Dale Huber, who is heading up the project that is making a mint from SIM cards.
"We've had centuries to sort out the best ways to mine gold, but we haven't put a whole lot of thought into the best ways we can get gold from this electronic waste," Dr Huber said.
Not a day goes by when there is not a new device poised to replace an old one.
Dr Huber said recycling all these old gadgets was difficult.
"A lot of it is being thrown away," he said.
"What is being recycled, most of it is being done is environmentally unfriendly ways.
"[We have] a way where we are not introducing anymore toxic chemicals and we can fairly easily strip the most precious parts of this electronic waste and reuse it."
"Most kinds of electronic waste are complicated and large," Dr Huber said.
"SIM cards are nice and convenient.
"The first one we did was my own SIM card from a carrier I was upset with.
"It came out fully stripped of gold, but also a bit mangled, which I appreciated."
His research team submerges SIM cards in water and blasts it with ultrasonic waves.
"It can create bubbles, and these bubbles collapse, and when they collapse they can shoot out a jet that hits the surface and actually physically breaks off pieces of metals," Dr Huber said.
While the process is still being refined and the project is still in its infancy, Dr Huber said his team was looking to develop the technology into a larger scale operation.
"You can think of it as a really tiny mine, where you separate these valuable metals one after another, but instead of starting with piles of earth you can start with a lot smaller piles of electronic waste," Dr Huber said.
There are also environmental issues associated with the current methods of gold extracting from e-waste.
"The approach that a lot of people take is to use mercury, which is known to dissolve gold selectively," Dr Huber said.
"But then you've got this gold and mercury mix, and the way to separate them is to boil off the mercury and, typically, it is hard and expensive to recapture the mercury, so it just goes into the air, which is just a terrible thing to do."
In 2016 alone, Australia generated 570,000 tonnes of e-waste.
Of that, only 7.5 percent avoids landfill, according to UN University's 2017 Global E-Waste Monitor.
Sunil Herat is a senior lecturer of waste management at Griffith University in Queensland.
He said Australian's love for new technology was creating an issue.
"Australia and New Zealand have one of the highest generation of e-waste per capita compared to the rest of the world," Dr Herat said.
"The generation of e-waste is increasing at an alarming rate. Even much higher than the normal other waste streams."
While devices contain useful materials, they also contain dangerous metals, such as lead, cadmium and mercury, which contaminate the environment when left in landfill.
"Recycling is supposed to safely remove those toxic metals and recover the precious metals, but that process requires a lot of technology, but that technology is still developing and not available in many countries,"Dr Herat said.
"The challenge for these technologies is: how we transform them into real practice and how we can get the industry to implement those technologies."
Total Green Recycling director Michael Coghill and his brother started up their recycling business in Western Australia 10 years ago when the industry was in the "dark ages".
"We started out in our Dad's shed and we were only doing a couple of tonnes a month," Mr Coghill said.
"Now we're doing 200 tonnes a month, which is around about 80 percent of what's being collected in WA."
Since the introduction of the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme in 2011, Australia is cleaning up its act.
To date, over 1,800 e-waste collection services have been made available.
Under the scheme, 35 per cent of end-of-life televisions and computers were recycled in 2014-15, compared to only 9 per cent in 2008.
At his factory in the Perth suburb of Kewdale, Mr Coghill oversees the first steps of this recycling process.
"We're basically the first step in a large process of recovering spent consumer electronics, breaking them into their different materials and connecting those materials to downstream recyclers," he said.
"We recover around 90 different types of materials — gold being one of the focus materials, and we send that to the Mitsubishi smelter in Japan."
But Mr Coghill said he was very interested by the new technology being developed by Dr Huber in the US.
"I am keen to find out more about it," he said.
"There are a lot of new processes being developed."
"People are definitely tuning into the amount of gold that exists in electronics and contrasting the cost of mining to extract these materials with new technologies."