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Will microbes be the new e-scrap gold diggers?

New Zealand’s Mint Innovation has unveiled what it describes as ‘the world’s first e-scrap bio-refinery’, a facility using micro-organisms to recover precious metals from electronic waste. The company’s technology combines chemistry and biology to offer a local solution for cities or regions.

‘Gold, palladium and copper will be the first key metals to be extracted from e-scrap in a couple of weeks,’ announces Mint Innovation’s ceo Dr Will Barker. ‘Our bio-refinery uses micro-organisms to scavenge precious metals from complex waste streams,’ he explains. ‘It is cyanide-free and the process streams themselves are recycled, providing an environmentally responsible solution for the particularly noxious waste stream.’

Attractive feedstock

‘The world has an electronic waste problem that is compounded by both consumer demand for the latest electronic gadgets and more countries refusing to import e-waste,’ Barker stresses. ‘Some 50 million tonnes of e-scrap was generated worldwide last year, with the metallic value alone estimated to be close to US$ 50 billion (EUR 44 billion). This includes US$ 22 billion in gold, found primarily in circuit boards. That “urban ore” is attractive feedstock for us.’

From pilot to practice

The New Zealand facility is a pilot, but Barkers says Mint Innovation is already looking ahead to where in the world it should first take its ‘patented’ bioprocessing technology. ‘The primary advantage of our technology is the scalability – enabling deployment of city-scale plants that can recover value from e-waste in the city of collection.’ 

Heading for the UK

Mint plans to fund and build plants in cities and regions, such as the Birmingham-Manchester-Liverpool triangle in the UK, where e-waste streams are said to range ‘from 1 000 tonnes to 50 000 tonnes a year’. Recyclers will first sort the waste into various value streams and send circuit boards to a local Mint Innovation plant. Mint plans to deal directly with recyclers with transparent payments based on the value of metal recovered.

New Zealand’s government has provided US$ 600 000 for the construction of the demo plant, which will be open for inspection by recyclers from around the world. Mint expects to recover around metals worth US$ 10 000 from each tonne of crushed and powdered e-waste supplied by New Zealand’s IT recycler Remarkit.  

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