There’s gold in them thar consumer electronics.
Most people picture copper when they think about how electricity is conducted, probably because it’s the most common conductor. Silver is actually the best conductor, followed closely by gold. Copper is cheaper than precious metals, but it’s also much slower in transporting electrons than its glamorous siblings. In the world of computing and communications, speed is more important than cost, so copper remains relegated to construction and pennies.
And as fast a conductor as silver is, it corrodes or tarnishes easily whenever it comes in contact with water — even with humid air. Corrosion is to electrons what fresh road tar would be to Olympic runners.
Gold, on the other hand, is highly corrosion-resistant. So, while it’s not as fast as silver, it doesn’t fall apart like silver and is many times faster than copper.
There is intrigue brewing in the electronics industry, though. Some manufacturers are looking at how quickly people upgrade their electronic devices to learn whether using gold is necessary.
If consumers replace their devices faster than silver can break down, electronics companies may decide to depose gold as the ruler of conductors to fatten their margins. Why pay to install high-quality materials when so many buyers crave novelty more?
Were this trend to take hold, devices would have shorter life spans, which would stifle resale markets and, not coincidentally, increase the flow of unwanted goods to recyclers.
To learn more about gold and how it is removed from discarded devices, I spoke to Sean Magann, vice president of sales and marketing for Sims Recycling Solutions—North America, a division of the global re-use and recycling firm Sims Metal Management.
How much gold is in a smartphone?
Magann: In very rough numbers, there are 10 troy ounces of gold (or about three-fifths of a pound) per ton of smartphones. Ten thousand phones weigh one ton. [With gold selling for about $1,580 per ounce, that would yield $15,800.]
How about a laptop?
Magann: Two hundred laptops would yield five troy ounces of gold.
How much is in an average desktop?
Magann: A PC circuit board, where the gold is, weighs about a pound. If you had a ton of those boards, you should have 5 troy ounces of gold.
Are there manufacturers that use more gold than others?
Magann: Computer makers don’t make their circuit boards because they are commodity items. They buy them from third parties. The trend in using gold among all of those companies is definitely down. It’s a costly material, so they are looking for more efficient ways to make the boards, trying to use as little gold as possible.
How long does it take to get all the gold out?
Magann: Individuals can take apart a smartphone easily by hand, but the volume of gold is going to be small.
It’s not uncommon for a developing nation to accept all kinds of trash from developed nations, including electronics, in return for cash. Local entrepreneurs typically burn circuit boards and use cyanide on the ash to separate the gold. That’s not what anyone would call a green process, but it is a cottage industry because it gets the job done reasonably inexpensively.
We use a mechanical process, shredding computer components to quarter-inch bits to liberate the plastic, aluminum, steel, gold and other materials to create commodity streams. Magnets grab the steel. Eddy currents are used to propel non-ferrous metals (including precious metals) from plastics.
Is shredding computers the best way to get at the gold?
Magann: There are lots of interesting ideas for technologies that could possibly be better, but it’s hard to compete against developing nations that are manually breaking things down, often in environmentally unfriendly ways. Doing it almost any other way to protect the environment is going to be more expensive.
Jim Nash is an award-winning business, tech and science journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Economist Group and Scientific American.