Retrieving What’s Precious: The Business of Mining Minerals from Recycled Electronics

By Veena Clay March 28, 2014

As electronic goods continue to top the list of growing sources of waste material, a heightened market for the precious minerals within them is also emerging. Though recycling these minerals requires considerable research and specialized skill, new technologies are helping the process become one of the most important on the landscape of electronics recycling today.

According to the EPA, electronics accounts for 20 to 50 million tons of global waste. The EPA also reports recycling just 1 million cell phones could yield 50 pounds of gold, 550 pounds of silver, 20 pounds of palladium and 20,000 pounds of copper. In addition, rare earth minerals, often used to create powerful magnets and in a plethora of industrial high-end technologies, can also be found in recycled electronics.

The business for these minerals is booming, but not with out a few paradoxes. Millions of smartphones, computers and other electronic devices are produced each year. Yet, only a small percentage of these will ever see the recycling bin. For instance, according to the EPA, only 8% of cell phones were recycled in 2009. While the boon for mineral extraction from recycled electronics waits patiently, it seems consumers are rather slow to grasp the significance of even a single act of recycling.

Digger gold and other precious and semiprecious metals

In fact, electronic devices are a hotbed for precious metals, albeit in small amounts. Precious metals such as gold, silver and palladium can be found in cell phones — even older models. They can also be found in the circuit boards of cable devices such as cable boxes and cable cards. The gold found in these is often termed “digger gold.”

According to the Connectivist blog, the process of extracting and refining precious metals found in recycled electronics can be decidedly difficult, but not impossible. Typically, precious metal recovery involves a number of both mechanical and chemical methods. For instance, electronics can be grounded or pounded to a fine powder, and then refined for increased purity. Biodegradable methods, though rare and small-scale at present, are achieved with the use of non-biotoxic solvents.

In fact, excitement is sure to grow about recent developments at Northwestern University, where scientist Zhichang Liu has uncovered a method of gold extraction using simple cornstarch. Liu, a postdoctoral fellow, is a member of Sir Fraser Goddart’s lab at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Goddart, a Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry, has said this discovery is “of the utmost importance environmentally,” especially because it could eliminate the traditional use of cyanide, a highly toxic chemical, in precious metal extraction.

Best of all, the new method of gold extraction is also applicable to retrieving gold from recycled consumer electronics.

Palladium, another precious metal, is also finding its way to easier extraction. Researchers in Australia have prevailed at using the new technology of microfluids to extract both palladium and platinum from other sources, possibly including recycled electronics. The method apparently speeds up the extraction process and takes up a significantly smaller amount of space in extraction plants.

Semiprecious metals such as copper are also a large part of the recycled consumer electronics game. These can be found in a number of electronic devices, including mobile phones, cable cords and boxes, laptops, desktops, tablets and more. Extraction methods are similar, and sometimes even less complicated, than precious metals.

Rare earth minerals

Rare earth minerals, also known simply as rare earths, are minerals that occupy a small portion of the elemental chart. These are actually quite prevalent through the earth’s crust. However, when they are found, they are much less concentrated in comparison to other types of ores.

The minerals, 17 in total, can be used in a wide variety of high-tech applications. Most often, rare earths are used as powerful magnets and serve as a portion of the components of hybrid batteries and other eco-efficient devices. Rare earth magnets, on a very small scale, can be used in electronic devices, and this plays a huge role in making smartphones, tablets and laptops ever smaller in size.

Rare earth production factories thrive in France and Japan. In fact, according to Forbes, Honda and Japanese Metals and Chemicals have recently teamed up to extract nickel metal hydride from old batteries to be used in new batteries for hybrid cars. China stands as the leader in rare earth industry production. The country has been known to provide 90% of the world’s rare earth extraction from traditional mines, but has recently slowed production due to environmental concerns and resource depletion.

Indeed, the mining and refining process can be highly toxic and extremely damaging to the environment. Yet, demand for rare earths is rapidly expanding and prices are climbing, creating more and more incentive for higher levels of production and responsible extraction.

Preventing pollution and other benefits

Mining precious and semiprecious metals is a high polluter. The methods used to extract these metals from surrounding ore can send noxious fumes and gasses into the environment. The waste from mining is a threat to the individuals living nearby as well as to the environment.

However, as researchers discover newer and less toxic ways of extracting metals and minerals from recycled electronics, the door is open for a decrease in the amount of pollution from mining. We may be a long way from the day that extracting minerals from recycled electronics goes toe-to-toe with traditional mining methods, but the efforts around the world are definitely giving the process a good start.

Another benefit of mining from recycled electronics is the reuse of these minerals in new electronic devices. As more manufacturers continue to consider designing devices with eventual rare earth extraction and recycling in mind, the benefits of recycling electronics for rare earth content could get even more interesting.

Solving global issues with electronics recycling

More governments, companies and consumers are embracing the idea of retrieving minerals from recycled electronics on a variety of levels, but numbers need to increase and hopefully will do so as recycling electronics becomes a normalized process across the globe.

The process stands as a viable way to solve some to the world’s biggest pollution and mineral scarcity issues. With demand for certain minerals increasing on a daily basis, the development of new mineral extraction technology can only benefit the electronics recycling industry as a whole.