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Is Recovering Gold from Electronics Worth It?

Catherine Tramell
Catherine Tramell

Published June 14, 2022

Last updated June 15, 2022

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A diverse set of materials are used to make your favorite electronics. The bodies or external shells are usually plastic or metal, and the display/screen is primarily glass. The body and screen are physical elements you get to see, touch, and interact with routinely.
But quite a lot goes inside the hood too. It is where the real action is. And at the helm of the operations are another set of materials — usually precious metals such as gold, silver, copper, etc. The motherboard, for instance, is generally made of fiber and copper.

Metals are used because they help with electrical conductivity. Precious metals are more widely used due to their superior performance. Gold boasts excellent electrical conductivity, which is much better than copper. It’s also a lot more corrosion-resistant than silver and other precious metals.

Gold is commonly found in connectors, soldered joints, connection strips, connecting wires, etc., of your favorite electronic devices. Though copper is widely used in PCB (printed circuit board) fabrication, gold-plated circuit boards are not rare.

So, does that mean your electronics are gold treasures waiting to be tapped into? No, not exactly. Then, does that imply it is not worth the time and effort to recover the gold? The answer is, “It depends”.

To understand the topic more comprehensively, we’ll discuss:

  • The different electronics that contain gold and how much
  • Is mining gold from them worth it
  • How to go about the gold extraction process
  • Answers to a few pertinent questions and more

You can find gold in not-very-obvious places or places that you least expect them to be in, such as your electronics. With a sole focus on how to recover gold from electronics, let’s take the discussion further.

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How Much Gold Do Different Electronic Items Hold?

Gold is primarily found in the circuit boards of different electronic goods — laptops, smartphones, cameras, etc. Some would have a greater amount of gold than others due to their sheer size, technologies used, period of manufacturing (product generation), etc. Not to mention, older electronics tend to have a lot more gold than modern devices.

To make the approximately 5,000 medals (gold, silver, and bronze) for the Tokyo Olympics 2020, the game’s organizers employed precious metals extracted from waste electronics weighing close to 72,000 tonnes. The people of Japan donated those electronics. Tokyo 2020 organizers communicated the same officially through their Twitter account so that winners did not bite on the medals.

Computers, TVs, Cameras, Etc.

Desktop computers and laptops are likely to have a lot of gold than most other electronic goods. Besides printed circuit boards, gold could be found in graphics cards, modem cards, memory chips, etc., of your computers. Expect to harvest gold somewhere around five troy ounces from 200 laptops. Both flatscreen and CRT televisions have gold on their circuit boards.

Old VHS camcorders, modern DSLRs, and mirrorless cameras have gold too. The larger camcorders that take in VHS tape cassettes are likely to have gold and silver embedded onto their large circuit boards. And like digital cameras, film cameras too contained circuit boards and, therefore, gold.

Gaming consoles have gold as well in their primary controller board. Arcades with push buttons and joysticks could also comprise gold.

Smartphones

A typical smartphone should comprise 0.2 grams of gold. Besides the circuit board, the SIM card and the smaller sections on the rear of the phone’s LCD/OLED screen could also have gold.   

Gold-plated handsets have a similar amount of gold within. Besides the gold foils they are plastered with and a few aesthetic design changes, there’s otherwise not a lot of difference between them and regular smartphones vis-a-vis the quantity of gold used in them.

Other Goods

Pretty much any device using a PCB is likely to have some amount of gold in it, including coffee makers, smoke detectors, refrigerators, automobiles, and every other machine that employs heating or cooling in some form to operate.

You could find gold in a car or most other vehicles, particularly in the newer cars loaded with electronics. The chips used for anti-lock brakes and airbag inflation are good places to scan for gold. Heat insulation is another place where you can find the precious metal.

The following are some non-electronic items that you could extract gold from:

  • CDs, DVDs: Before you scrap your badly scratched-up CD or DVD, check if there’s gold in the disc’s reflective surface. Not all discs contain gold. Typically, the high-end ones, which have a distinct gold color, have traces of gold.
  • Books: Some books have shimmery edges because those are actual gold. If the gold is one of its kind or the original edition of a prestigious book series, the book could be more precious than the gold.
  • Clothing: Because gold is malleable, it’s not rare to see them employed in embroidered dresses as fine threads or wires. Decorative clothes could also have some gold.

Is It Worth Extracting Gold from Electronics?

Gold is a rare earth element, and not capitalizing on gold readily available for mining is foolhardy. But that doesn’t mean you go about dismantling your perfectly usable devices in search of gold, as it will not be worth it in the end.

Trying to recover gold from obsolete or not-in-use-anymore-but-still-lying-around electronics makes sense. An even more prudent approach is to start digging into electronics for gold once you’ve amassed quite a bunch of them.

The amount of gold found in individual electronic goods would be insignificant and not worth the ordeal. But if it’s a pack of junk hardware at your disposal ready to be mined, you could become richer by a few hundred or thousand dollars after the end of it all.

Josehf Lloyd Murchison, an electronics technology engineer, extracted gold worth $1,600 from electronics he had gathered in three months. It’s not clear whether those outdated devices were his own or procured from others.

Is it Environment-Friendly to Extract Gold from Electronics?

Considering gold is not in unlimited supply and because producing new gold is cost-, resources-, and effort-intensive, extracting gold from electronics is more than acceptable economically and ethically. Not to mention the heavy toll traditional gold mining has on the planet.

By retrieving gold and other precious metals (silver, platinum, etc.) from old electronics, recycling and reusing the recovered gold in new devices without digging up the earth for new gold becomes possible.

Extracting the Gold from an Electronic Device: The Process

Recovering gold from a piece of electronics is not straightforward, but it’s also not that difficult. You will not be greeted with ready-to-pick or easy-to-strip gold after you pry open your device. The biggest challenge would be separating the gold from the components or other materials they are sternly attached to.

Though you need not be exceptionally skilled at the task, basic chemistry knowledge and understanding the hazardous outcome of wrongly dealt chemicals and various tools are mandatory.

Tools and Precautionary Measures

Without the right tools handy, the extraction task would not just be potentially hazardous but will also be pretty much impossible. Ensure you’ve got the equipment needed and suitable protective gear/equipment (rubber gloves, goggles, overalls, etc.).

Furthermore, carry out the task in a well-lit, very well-ventilated room. Do not do it in your basement, man cave, she-shed, or any place that’s insulated.

Certain chemicals you use could emit toxic fumes or be highly combustible. They will cause skin burns and breathing issues if you use those hazardous chemicals without your protective gear on.

Knowing basic first aid or having someone around to administer the same when things go wrong is critical. Have hydrogen peroxide handy as it’s a mild antiseptic that can be used to mitigate infection from minor scrapes, cuts, and burns.

The Extraction Process

Gold recovery or extracting gold from cell phones, gaming consoles, televisions, printers, etc., requires the right knowledge about using acid or cyanide to isolate the gold from the component(s) it’s attached to. Extracting the gold used to connect various parts is more accessible than the ones embedded onto PCBs.

You can separate gold from a given electronic item that entails segregating, stripping, and melting. Start with isolating the gold-housing component from the device. Once that’s done, place the part into a vessel or container.

Pour a solution containing weak hydrogen peroxide (one part) and lab-grade hydrochloric acid (two parts) over a given circuit board until it’s completely submerged in the solution. Let it remain in the liquid mix for a week. After a week, the acid would darken, and the gold flakes would start to come off of the component. Collect the fragments using a coffee filter.

Next, add some borax into a hot clay bowl. Once the borax softens, put the gold flakes into the bowl. Continue the heating until the bits turn into beads. Let the gold beads cool before taking them out. Borax is used because it brings down gold’s melting point (1,064°C or 1,947°F). And with a blowtorch, it’s hard to hit those temperatures.

Post-Extraction

It’s essential to dispose of the remains of products stripped of their gold responsibly. While selling them in the used electronics market is possible, it could take some time to go through since not all electronic scrap is valued the same. Invariably, you’ll have to send the electronic remains to an e-waste recycling center, and you’ll not get paid for doing that.

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Conclusion

Gold mining from old electronics may not be the primary way to put increased amounts of gold in fresh supply soon. But with the world becoming more aware of global warming and its impact, it may not be long before urban mining or recovering gold from outdated electronics becomes the primary gold production method.

Also, planet Earth has a huge e-waste problem, which doesn’t seem as ominous as it currently is because the impact is pernicious or not readily palpable. Only a tiny fraction of the population has seen an e-waste landfill in person or come to terms with the gravity of the matter.

Therefore, go ahead and extract gold from your used-up electronics since it’s both environment-friendly and a positive financial exercise. Just make sure you do it safely and with all the precautions in place.

FAQs

Do all electronic goods have gold inside them?

Because gold has been around for several thousand years and is an excellent conductor of electricity, it’s safe to assume gold has been used in electronics forever. From CRT TVs, camcorders, and even printers to smartphones, digital cameras, and headphones, pretty much every electronic good out there employs gold in some way or the other.