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How to mine for gold in your television set and computer keyboard

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Where do your computer, iPhone, and television go when they die? Mostly they end up in dumps. Now, people in North America, India, and Europe are harvesting these trashed electronic parts to recover the precious metals within. Though gold is often what they seek, lead and copper are valuable in large quantities too. Take a look at the places where you can find valuable metals in your electronics — though beware of the health dangers of e-garbage prospecting.


Valuable metals beneath your fingertips

A metric ton of electronic waste contains 8 to 16 ounces of gold - a considerably profitable scenario if you have the means to properly recover the gold in a pure form. In addition to gold, other metals like lead and copper are common in electronic waste.


The cathode ray tubes in older televisions and computer monitors contain lead, barium, and strontium. Lead is recovered by private and government recycling units due to the possibility of air contamination when waste is incinerated.

Copper is found along the tracks of printed circuit boards, while gold is popular in connectors due to its conductive properties. Thieves destroy air conditioners worth several thousand dollars to retrieve a few dollars worth of copper, so digging through electronic waste is a worthwhile (and legal) venture for many.

A burgeoning hobby
Hobbyists are starting a modern day gold rush by using harsh chemicals like aqua regia (a mixture of concentrated nitric acid and hydrochloric acid) to solubilize the platinum and gold in electronics.


Hard drives and motherboards are placed in an acid bath and left until fully dissolved, with additional chemicals added to the solution to alter the equilibrium and precipitate gold or other precious metals. The solid gold is then recovered and sold or dissolved again to increase the purity.

This is not a safe process, with very minute amounts of valuable metals obtained when working on an individual scale. For profit metal refineries also purchase processors and other parts, giving around a dollar for an older processor and $15 for a pound of clipped gold-plated connectors. Refineries also buy used catalytic converters, recovering the platinum, rhodium, and palladium within used to decrease automobile exhaust emissions.


Why recycling e-waste is killing people

Electronic waste from North America often travels to China, while waste from Europe and Russia lands in northern parts of Africa. Your old 386 and Pentium II processors do not stay in the dump - locals gather processors, connectors, and circuit boards containing any element available for resale, and recover metals for sale. The workers often burn entire circuit boards in the process, exposing them to dangerous fumes from bubbling chemicals as the boards melt.


Workers in unlicensed e-waste recycling venues make between $4.50 to $5 a day - nowhere near the average salary for a worker in China, but enough to make a difference in the rural areas of provinces like Guangdong. Children also work part-time after school, scrounging through waste piles looking for copper wire.

Workers in unlicensed centers lack proper protection, exposing them further, with reports of chronic health problems like coughing up blood occurring among long-time workers. Death is sadly common as well, with 163 people dying from lead poisoning associated with e-waste within the village of Yar'Gailma in 2010.


Recovering valuable metals is not a safe process, but maybe that's coming from my healthy fear of certain chemicals gained during graduate school. I wouldn't think of dissolving computer parts in aqua regia without a considerable profit motive and an abundance of protective equipment.


The e-waste health risk twist is particularly unfortunate; a bizarre abuse what aims to be an eco-friendly system that instead destroys the health of fellow human beings half a world away.

The top image is by artvark78 on DeviantArt. Images from China Daily, Greenpeace, and the Basal Action Network. Sources linked within the article.