Turning waste into gold

March 01, 2024

Electronic waste contains a variety of valuable metals, including copper, cobalt, and even significant amounts of gold. Recovering this gold from disused smartphones and computers is an attractive proposition in view of the rising demand for the precious metal. To recover gold in the laboratory experiment, the team salvaged the electronic motherboards from 20 old computer motherboards and extracted the metal parts. When they placed the protein fibre sponge in the metal ion solution, the gold ions adhered to the protein fibres. Other metal ions can also adhere to the fibres, but gold ions do so much more efficiently.

Electronic waste contains a variety of valuable metals, including copper, cobalt, and even significant amounts of gold. Recovering this gold from disused smartphones and computers is an attractive proposition in view of the rising demand for the precious metal. However, the recovery methods devised to date are energy-intensive and often require the use of highly toxic chemicals. Now, a group led by ETH Professor Mezzenga has come up with a very efficient, cost-effective, and above all far more sustainable method: with a sponge made from a protein matrix, the researchers have successfully extracted gold from electronic waste.

Selective gold adsorption

To manufacture the sponge, Mohammad Peydayesh, a senior scientist in Mezzenga’s Group, and his colleagues denatured whey proteins under acidic conditions and high temperatures, so that they aggregated into protein nanofibrils in a gel. The scientists then dried the gel, creating a sponge out of these protein fibrils.

To recover gold in the laboratory experiment, the team salvaged the electronic motherboards from 20 old computer motherboards and extracted the metal parts. They dissolved these parts in an acid bath so as to ionise the metals.

When they placed the protein fibre sponge in the metal ion solution, the gold ions adhered to the protein fibres. Other metal ions can also adhere to the fibres, but gold ions do so much more efficiently. The researchers demonstrated this in their paper, which they have published in the journal external pageAdvanced Materialscall_made.

The source of this news is from ETH Zurich

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