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New Technique to Extract Gold From Old Electronics Could Make a Fortune, Scientists Say

Waste to Gold

A team of researchers at ETH Zurich in Switzerland has made a discovery that they say could turn recycling e-waste into a literal goldmine.

The researchers devised a novel way to extract precious metal from electronic waste, a sustainable method that is based on a byproduct from the food industry.

And it's pretty lucrative as well. For each dollar spent, the team suggests you could make $50 worth of gold.

Best of all, they say, it's an incredibly environmentally friendly process. The team found that protein fibril sponges, made from protein-rich byproducts from cheesemaking, can be used to extract the gold from discarded e-waste.

"The fact I love the most is that we’re using a food industry byproduct to obtain gold from electronic waste," said coauthor and ETH Zurich professor Raffaele Mezzenga in a statement. "You can’t get much more sustainable than that!"

Gold Thumb

As detailed in a new paper published in the journal Advanced Materials, the team was able to recover a 450-milligram nugget of 22-carat gold from just 20 old computer motherboards.

To do it, the team denatured whey proteins under acidic conditions and high temperatures to create a slurry of protein nanofibrils. They then dried this gel to create a sponge.

After dissolving the metal parts of the 20 motherboards and ionizing them in a bath, they placed the sponge in the solution to attract the gold ions.

By heating their sponge, the team reduced the collected ions into flakes, and eventually melted them into a tiny gold nugget.

This 450-milligram nugget was 91 percent gold and nine percent copper. At current rates per ounce, that's roughly $33 of gold.

According to the team, the energy costs present a mere 50th of the value of the gold that can be recovered, making it an incredibly profitable process if scaled up.

Now, the researchers are looking for ways to market their idea, and for other protein-rich byproducts that could be transformed into sponges.

According to the World Health Organization, e-waste is the fastest-growing solid waste stream in the world, with millions of electrical devices being discarded and thrown away. Without being recycled properly, this waste is not only incredibly harmful to the environment, but it can also be toxic to humans.

In short, incentivizing the recycling of e-waste can only be a good thing.

More on e-waste: Scientists Say Recycling Has Backfired Spectacularly