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A New Kind Of Gold Mine: Discarded SIM Cards Show Potential Of E-Waste Recycling

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Image Courtesy of Flickr user "warrenski"

(Kitco News) - Forget drilling or using heavy machinery to get to gold — a lab in the U.S. found a new way to mine for the yellow metal by simply applying ultrasonic waves to discarded SIM cards.

“We've had centuries to sort out the best ways to mine gold, but we haven't put a whole lot of thought into the best ways we can get gold from this electronic waste,” Sandia National Laboratories' materials chemist Dale Huber, who is the lead on the project, told ABC.

The biggest challenge is finding an efficient way to recycle electronic junk.

“A lot of [old gadgets] are being thrown away,” Huber said. “What is being recycled, most of it is being done in environmentally unfriendly ways. [We have] a way where we are not introducing any more toxic chemicals and we can fairly easily strip the most precious parts of this electronic waste and reuse it.”

The reason why the Sandia National lab, located in Albuquerque, is focusing on SIM cards is because they are small and easy to collect.

“The first one we did was my own SIM card from a carrier I was upset with,” Huber explained. “It came out fully stripped of gold, but also a bit mangled, which I appreciated.”

The so-called mining process takes place underwater, where SIM cards are exposed to ultrasonic waves.

“It can create bubbles, and these bubbles collapse, and when they collapse they can shoot out a jet that hits the surface and actually physically breaks off pieces of metals,” Huber said.

The lab plans to expand its project, which is more than within the realm of possibility.

“You can think of it as a really tiny mine, where you separate these valuable metals one after another, but instead of starting with piles of earth you can start with a lot smaller piles of electronic waste,” Huber noted.

The lab’s new venture makes up the world’s tiniest gold mine. But, this small-scale experiment has a much wider application, as the full potential of electronic waste recycling is staggering, with about $22.2 billion worth of gold being thrown away globally in the form of e-waste each year, according to the UN-based study published last year. 

The joint study released by the U.N. University (UNU), the International Telecommunication Union, and the International Solid Waste Association blamed consumeristic society for such e-wastefulness.

“There has been much debate and criticism of the growing ‘throwaway society’, characterized by consumerism and the trend to throw away and buy something new rather than keep and repair,” said the report titled ‘The Global E-waste Monitor 2017’.

Electronic waste hit at a record of 45 million metric tons worldwide in 2016, which “is equivalent of almost 4,500 Eiffel towers.”

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