With the growing demand for portable devices and the rapid evolution of electronics, the number of Weee (Waste from electrical and electronic equipment) is bound to splash. In 2019, the World Economic Forum estimated that by 2050 the world’s annual WEEE production will more than double to 120 million tonnes.
The Royal Mint of the United Kingdom has found a way to make a sustainable business out of this environmentally harmful trend. He has indeed found a way to extract precious metals hidden in laptops and smartphones, in order to reduce dependence on raw materials. Already last year the Royal Mint announced the construction of the world’s first facility in South Wales to recover gold from e-waste. The development of the plant is the result of its partnership with Excir, a Canadian startup, whose patented technology appears to be capable of recovering over 99% of the gold inside the printed circuit boards of laptops and mobile phones, selectively targeting the metal in a few seconds.
For two years, the Royal Mint has been working on creating a “mysterious” method of recovering metals from electronic waste. We are already talking about e-mining, making jewelry using metals reworked from devices such as mobile phones, laptops, and so on. By the end of the year – said the BBC – Royal Mint will open a new multi-million pound factory capable of processing 90 tonnes of circuit boards a week once fully operational, recovering hundreds of kilograms of gold every year.
The process consists of dissolution of metals in a chemical solution which can be reused up to twenty times, with the concentration of dissolved gold increasing each time. When another solution is added, the gold becomes a solid metal again. This powder is filtered and melted in a furnace into nuggets the size of a fingernail. The nuggets can then be turned into jewelry or ingots.
The sustainability of the business
But the real breakthrough lies in the scalability of this highly efficient chemical process. Electronic waste is the fastest growing type of waste in the world. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, around 50 million tonnes of WEEE are produced globally every year, however, only 20% is officially recycled, while the majority is thrown away and ends up in landfill or incinerated. Last year a study by price comparison service USwitch found that the UK produced the second highest amount of WEEE per person, with Norway first and the US eighth.
Like all critical raw materials, gold is a finite resource, but currently 7% of the world’s gold is found in discarded electronic devices. The extraction of this gold generally involves exporting the devices to Asia, where the WEEE is melted at extremely high temperatures in a process with a high environmental impact. The Royal Mint’s aim is to recover sustainably as possible from devices that are currently waste in a sustainable manner, using an effective process at room temperature that produces far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than melting.