Scientists may finally be arriving at a technological solution to the problem of how to efficiently recover precious metals from discarded electronics and other waste. Can you imagine: gold from garbage?
Discoveries in the Laboratory
Environmentalists of virtually all stripes agree that figuring out how to recycle, reuse, or eliminate our various forms of waste could prove to be a transformative element of the movement. Although creative ideas for how to best manage the enormous amount of waste our species creates are in abundance, they almost uniformly want for applicability and feasibility.
In a recent journal article published in ScienceDaily, a group of researchers at the University of York have, in the words of the paper's abstract, "demonstrated an innovative way of using a gel to extract precious metals such as silver and gold from waste." Although their findings must be taken as preliminary, the implications would be huge.
Technical details of the chemistry involved aside, the "conducting gel" developed by the University of York scientists showed the ability to selectively extract precious metals like gold, silver, platinum, palladium, and rhodium from the other metals they are typically intermingling with in electronic devices. While this first step is momentous enough, the gels also then converted the metals to useful nanoparticles that had conductive properties. In other words, the tiny amounts of recovered metal are recycled into a useful form for certain electronic applications.
Moreover, using such a gel may help to bridge the dry and mechanical electronics industry with the very moist world of biology and chemistry. The gels are derived from simple sugars.
Cleaning Up Street Waste
The discovery explained above is a reminder of a similar effort to make use of precious metals contained in the dust that lines our roadways. Microscopic pieces of platinum and palladium flake off of car exhaust pipes and collect on the surface of the street. One street sweeping company in the U.K., Veolia, wondered how they could capitalize on the imperceptibly small particles of precious metals found on the pavement.
Veolia built a plant to process the street dust rather than simply dump it (as is common practice). The real difficulty is making the process profitable: With less than 1 part per million of the valuable metals in the dust, our roads are far less mineral-rich than even the worst mines. The difference, however, is that it's far cheaper to filter and refine (let alone collect) street sweepings than a giant piece of ore.
Veolia estimates that it can recover 1.5 tonnes of platinum and 1.3 tonnes of palladium from England's roadways on an annual basis. The company believes it can net an extra $1 million per year from its filtration process.
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