26-10-2021 | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, the Royal Mint announced that it will be deploying proprietary techniques for recovering gold and silver from e-waste. What challenges does e-waste present, why is the Royal Mint looking at e-waste as a source of gold and silver, and what else can be recycled from e-waste?
When electronics are decommissioned and/or disposed of, the resulting waste is referred to as e-waste. Unlike typical waste that may include plastic, glass, and paper, e-waste is particularly problematic as it can contain a wide range of heavy metals and other dangerous substances. If e-waste is buried in a landfill, these compounds can leak into the surrounding areas, thus contaminating soils and groundwater.
E-waste is also becoming an increasingly complex problem to manage as incremental advances in technology result in larger amounts of outdated hardware that has to be replaced. The development of newer technologies further helps to encourage more consumerism which results in a positive feedback loop.
Another challenge that e-waste presents is the high toxicity of the waste combined with the ever-increasing amount of waste that needs to be disposed of often sees such waste shipped to poorer nations for recycling. However, many of these nations do not recycle the waste correctly and will often dump it near-poor residents who then suffer the consequences of e-waste.
In light of the many challenges of e-waste, the Royal Mint of England will be running a trial of e-waste recycling for the purpose of precious metal recovery. Despite the many challenges faced with e-waste, one positive factor behind e-waste is the large amount of precious metals they contain, including gold and silver. As these materials are high in value, recycling e-waste is potentially profitable.
In the case of the Royal Mint, a proprietary chemical process developed by the Canadian start-up company Excir will be used to extract such metals from circuit boards. The process developed by Excir can selectively extract precious metals with great efficiency, thereby making the process of gold and silver extraction economical.
While the current setup is only a trial run to establish how effective the process will be. It is believed that a dedicated e-waste plant will be established in the next few years with the ability to extract hundreds of kilograms of precious metals from many hundreds of tons of e-waste. From there, the extracted precious metals can then be used to make plates and coinage for the many nations who rely on the Royal Mint around the world.
The fast-paced nature of electronics development means that many components used in circuits are very quickly outdated. This means that extracting usable components such as transistors, resistors, and capacitors becomes an uneconomical option. Even high-end semiconductors such as CPUs and GPUs rarely have resale value as used components have shorter lifespans and are outdated.
However, there are still many materials in e-waste that could prove to be valuable in the future. For example, aluminium and steel are commonly found in circuit boards and electronic products in general. If a recycling process can extract these with little effort, they could be cheaper than fresh raw material.
Recycling components and old electronics can also be important for maintaining older systems that are not easily replaced. For example, a mainframe used by a bank may contain many millions of transactions, user accounts, and details that cannot be simply moved to a new system (not without facing significant downtime). If the mainframe requires upgrading, but parts are no longer manufactured, then e-waste could be a source of used parts that could keep the system functioning. Generally speaking, such components would be DDR memory cards, processors, motherboards, and PCI cards.
Overall, e-waste presents recyclers with extreme challenges and the rate at which e-waste is being produced only compounds this challenge. However, e-waste is also a potential goldmine for precious metals and components that may have hidden value.