More than 100 years ago, prospective prospectors for gold were hiking slopes and draining gravel in Alaska and Yukon. Today, a Canadian company sees a different kind of gold rush – prospecting the 300 tonnes of gold in the more than 50 million tonnes of electronic waste that is produced globally and is worth about $16 billion.
Excir’s pioneering technology is a huge step towards turning a problem – all those discarded phones, laptops and other electronic waste – into a resource that can be recaptured in a sustainable way at room temperature – no smelting at high temperatures required.
And it is not just gold. Excir’s process lets it recapture other precious metals that go into the circuit boards in our electronics, including silver, palladium, platinum, and copper.
The UK’s oldest company – the Royal Mint – has become the first in the world to start construction of a plant that will retain all those precious metals from the electronic waste. “Embracing the principles of a circular economy, the plant will be able to process the entire circuit board – preserving natural resources for longer, helping to reduce the environmental impact of electronic waste and fostering new skills and employment in the UK,” the Mint says.
The new plant is part of how the Royal Mint, which has been making British coins for more than 1,100 years, is reinventing itself as a leader in sustainably sourced precious metals. Based in Llantrisant, South Wales its business focuses on currency, consumer (collectable and rare, historic coins) and precious metals investment.
Says Anne Jessopp, the Mint’s CEO: “We are transforming our business for the future – expanding into areas which complement our expertise in precious metals, champion sustainability and support employment. Our investment in a new plant will see The Royal Mint become a leader in sustainably sourced precious metals and provide the UK with a much-needed domestic solution to the growing problem of electronic waste.”
Construction of the plant begins this month. When fully operational in 2023, it expects to process up to 90 tonnes of UK-sourced circuit boards per week – generating hundreds of kilograms of gold per year. The new business venture will support around 40 jobs, helping existing employees to reskill as well as recruiting new chemists and engineers.
This revolutionary approach “offers huge potential to reuse our planet’s precious resources, reduce the environmental footprint of electronic waste and create new jobs,” says Sean Millard, the Mint’s chief growth officer. “We estimate that 99% of the UK’s circuit boards are currently shipped overseas to be processed at high temperatures in smelters. As the volume of electronic waste increases each year, this problem is only set to become bigger. When fully operational our plant will be the first of its kind in the world – processing tonnes of electronic waste each week, and providing a new source of high quality gold direct to The Royal Mint.”
Less than 20% of the more than 50 million tonnes of electronic waste produced globally each year is recycled. By 2030, that figure will reach 74 million tonnes unless others begin to take action as the Royal Mint has done.
It is a small scale revolution in refining, Excir says. “Each gram of precious metal we produce has ‘verified provenance’ that provides assurance that all precious metals are ethically sourced and 100% traceable to their origin. Excir technology allows for the efficient extraction of precious metals from alternative mining sources including E-waste. The Excir lixiviant is an extremely mild and eco-friendly solution that can be recycled with negligible environmental impact.”
Excir “understands our role as an ethical steward of the planet’s finite natural resources. Our end goal is to have a significant impact on industry’s use of cyanide within mining.”
Excir on The Dragon’s Den, CBC.
The gold jewellery made from old phones. BBC Future Planet, Sep. 5, 2023