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Gold mining with mushrooms

| May 7, 2014

What do gold mining, mushrooms, and landfills have in common? Put together, they sound like elements of an extraordinarily strange dream — but they’re all part of a very real, very novel approach to electronics recycling.

Here’s the short version: a special kind of mushroom is being used to filter gold and other precious metals out of discarded electronics.

gold mining

Electronics contain trace amounts of gold and other metals. From Pete Brown.

Intrigued? Good. Here’s the whole story: Electronic waste including mobile phones and computers contain trace amounts of gold, silver, and/or other precious metals. (No wonder the latest smartphones are so expensive, right?) While each individual piece doesn’t typically contain much, it adds up in a big way. According to a report by Adele Peters in Fast Company’s Co.Exist, upwards of $21 billion per year in gold and silver alone goes into making electronics.

As we’ve discussed before in this blog, most of our society doesn’t quite have the hang of electronics recycling. So what happens to those precious metals when users discard the electronic item? They end up in the landfill. In fact, the bulk of that $21 billion per year ends up in a landfill.

Are you suddenly tempted to head down to your local dump with a metal detector and a shopping list? Not so fast. The precious metals are notoriously difficult to extract from electronic devices. While there is certainly a market for the process, it’s expensive and cumbersome and not particularly environmentally friendly.

That is, until now. Researchers at the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland recently pioneered a new approach that uses — you guessed it — mushrooms to extract the metals. As Peters explains, “Mycelium, the root-like part of a mushroom that can be seen growing under logs in the woods, can be crushed into a fine powder and treated to help filter gold out of phones and other electronics.”

The process isn’t completely without flaws. For one thing, it has only been tested on a very small scale. For another, the mushrooms need to be treated with chemicals in order for them to perform the process effectively. The electronics are also “bathed in a solution first.”

Still, proponents say the mushroom approach is still clearly a preferable alternative to the large volume of toxic chemicals — not to mention energy — necessary in the traditional precious metal extraction process used for electronic waste. The mushroom approach is cheaper and also more effective than the standard extraction process. It can recover as much as 80 percent of the gold in an electronic device, compared with a 20 percent recovery rate from the standard process. And, of course, mushrooms are in ample supply.

Cheaper, cleaner, more sustainable, and more effective? What’s not to like? Peters says that eventually, the mushroom process “could potentially be used in both industrial facilities and in outdoor dumps in places like Ghana, which imports hundreds of thousands of e-waste each year.”

The mushroom process is still in a nascent stage, and researchers continue to work on improvements. That’s good news because the electronic waste keeps piling up!

Category: Blog Landing Page, Electronics

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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