How Much Gold Is in Your Computer and How Efficient It Is to Reclaim It
Did you know your old electronics, like your ex-computer, have actual gold inside of them? But where, and can you extract it?
Not only that, but they can also include other precious metals like silver or palladium. Read on to find out more.
What parts of a computer have gold in them?
It is a known fact that many computers and electronic devices contain some amount of precious metals, like gold. Located on the printed circuit boards, processors, and other components, some electronics can have relatively high levels of the stuff.
With regards to gold alone, the main PC parts containing gold include, but are not limited to:
- Motherboards and printed circuit boards - The motherboard in particular is often the best potential source of gold in computers. The edges of most components on the board will have gold contacts and connectors where the wires slide in. You will often find thin layers of gold on the motherboard's surface.
- Central Processing Units (CPUs) - These are the large square microchip-looking things you'll find on motherboards. They tend to have hundreds of gold-plated pins around their edge and undersurface. If you have a large cache of them, it could be worth a pretty penny.
- Random Access Memory Chips (RAM) - A part of the circuit board, these little gold mines are installed to increase the operational memory of your computer. They often contain a small but a significant amount of gold-plated pins, and a thin layer of gold on their surfaces.
- Internal modems, PCI boards, ethernet ports, GPU, and other peripherals like drives - Most computers contain at least one or more of these extra boards. They also often contain large relatively amounts of gold. Like other components, you'll find the gold on connection pins and surface layers.
But gold isn't the only precious metal you'll likely find in your electronics. Some other common precious metals commonly used in electronic devices include:
- Silver – Circuit Boards, Computer Chips, keyboard membranes, and some capacitors
- Platinum – Hard Drives, Circuit board components
- Palladium – Hard Drives, Circuit board components (capacitors)
- Copper – CPU heat sinks, wiring, and cables, Printed Circuit Boards, Computer Chips
- Nickel – Circuit board components
- Tantalum – Circuit board components (some capacitors)
- Cobalt – Hard Drives
- Aluminum – Printed Circuit Boards, Computer Chips, Hard Drives, CPU heat sinks
- Tin – Printed Circuit Boards, Computer Chips
- Zinc – Printed Circuit Boards
- Neodymium – Hard Drives (magnets)
So, as you see, rather than just chucking away your old computer, it might be worth doing some scavenging.
How much gold is in a computer?
With all those components having at least some gold and other precious metals in them, could you get rich dismantling and extracting them?
Probably not, at least not from one or two old PCs.
Some reports tell us that an entire old-school PC contained an eye-watering $9 worth of gold. But that's not counting the cost of removing it.
Some other sources estimate that your average computer contains about 1/5th of a gram, or about $12 worth, of gold in them. Laptops, on the other hand, typically contain about 1/10th of a gram of gold, or around $6 worth.
However, the actual value will depend entirely on the type of e-waste you are looking at, of course. For example, industrial video equipment often has a proportionally higher amount of gold, sometimes in excess of 56 grams per machine.
After all the labor needed to physically break apart the computer and extract the gold, this hardly seems worth the effort. In fact, you'll probably find yourself out of pocket with such an enterprise on a small number of machines.
In some circumstances, computer components might be worth more intact, for reuse and resale.
However, if you can recycle this kind of waste by the the ton, the financial outlook begins to make more sense. This is especially true if you are buying e-waste in bulk at next to nothing.
Oftentimes, most companies who specialize in this industry focus on circuit boards, CPUs, and motherboards as these tend to have the highest grade gold. In fact, compared to traditional gold mining, one tonne of e-waste can contain 40 to 800 times more gold than actual gold ore!
And there is a lot of it. According to sources like The World Counts, somewhere in the order of 50 million tons of e-waste are discarded every year. The USA alone creates about 11 million tons of e-waste every single year.
Of that, a negligible 12.5%, or so, is actually recycled or reprocessed.
In a lot of cases, e-waste is simply shipped to Asia and Africa to be recycled. Once there, it is usually sorted and sold for scrap, or simply burnt in an attempt to either dispose of it or attempt to extract valuable materials.
This is not only a very wasteful practice, but it is potentially very damaging physically to the people (it's often children) doing it, and the environment!
This is because a lot of e-waste actually contains extremely toxic chemicals like lead, cadmium, dioxins, gurans, arsenic, mercury, DDT, PCB, chromium, vinyl chloride, antimony, beryllium, etc.
For this reason, many Western nations have implemented e-waste regulations to attempt to curb the more dangerous aspects of disposing of old electronics.
Why use gold in electronics anyway?
Since gold is widely considered to be a very valuable material, you might wonder why it is used in electronics in the first place. As it turns out, gold has some very interesting and useful properties that make it practically unrivaled when it comes to being used in electronics.
In fact, the electronics industry is one of the major consumers of gold. Things like solid-state electronic devices tend to use very low voltages and currents. For this reason, they can be easily interrupted by corrosion and tarnish at contact points.
Gold is a great solution to this problem, as it is a highly efficient electrical conductor, that is capable of carrying tiny currents and remaining free of corrosion. For this reason, electrical connectors, switches and relays, soldering points, connecting wires, and connection strips are often made using gold or gold-plating, as this makes them more durable and reliable.
Most sophisticated modern electronic devices tend to have at least a small amount of gold in them. This can include things like phones, calculators, personal digital assistants, global positioning system (GPS) units, and other small electronic devices.
You will also find gold in larger electronic devices like televisions, too. Not to mention computers, as we previously discussed.
Gold is also used in the aerospace and defense industries. Space vehicles, in particular, rely heavily on gold as they need to operate for extended periods of time without the ability to easily lubricate, maintain, and repair many of their parts.
For this reason, the connections used need to be extremely durable, and as we have seen, gold is excellent for this. Gold can also help protect space vehicles from the worst effects of infrared radiation.
Aerospace gold acts like a high-tech sunblock. Polyester film is coated with gold particles, and this film can then be used to reflect solar radiation away from the craft. Gold is also used as a lubricant for mechanical parts, as traditional alternatives would simply vaporize in the vacuum of space.
Given the very valuable nature of gold, there has been a hunt to find cheaper, and more sustainable, alternatives or solutions to reduce its use. For example, base metals coated in a thin layer of gold can offer a way to cut down on the total use of gold in electronics.
Other metals, like palladium, platinum, and silver are commonly used as actual substitutes for gold, as they have similar properties to it. However, these metals are generally also rare and expensive.
How to get gold from computer parts without chemicals?
One of the most cost and time efficient ways of extracting gold from electronics is by using chemicals. However, this should only be attempted by people who are knowledgeable in chemistry and have the right safety apparatus to do so.
Using chemicals on electronics components will often release very toxic fumes, and should only be done with the right personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilation. For this reason, you might be wondering if there is a way of doing it without relying on chemicals?
But before you completely rule-out using chemicals, some researchers found an interesting method using weak acids, like vinegar, to get the job done. You could also consider reverse electroplating too.
Alternatively, you could simply ship your bits to a specialized precious metal reclamation company, have them do all the work, and get paid a proportion of the proceeds. This will not be as cost-effective, but you chould still yield a profit without getting your hands dirty.
It might also be worth checking how much money electronic components are worth as is, rather than focusing on the gold content alone.
But, if you are determined to do it yourself, you have two main options: using heat or using brute force. The former tends to be very expensive in fuel and apparatus, plus is pretty dangerous if you don't know what you are doing. The latter is; however, relatively safer but more labor-intensive .
For this method, the first stage is to make a collection of spare electronic gubbins. Computer chips and boards, and other parts from other electronics like cellphones (like the SIM card), are all likely candidates for finding a decent amount of gold.
The next stage is to strip out any circuit boards, and other bits, you've managed to scrounge together. You will need to do this by hand if you don't want to use potentially dangerous chemicals like hydrogen peroxide and aqua regia.
You could just cut off the gold-rich parts, like contacts, CPUs, etc, and save the rest of the bits for later. They also have precious metals, like silver, that you can reclaim later. For some parts, you can use a magnet to separate out all gold-plated steel parts.
Next, collect all the gold flakes and bits and pieces together and melt them down. You'll need specialist equipment such as a clay bowl and blowtorch to do this, and sufficient protective gear like flame-resistant clothing, boots, and googles.
For best results, you'll likely want to add some borax, as this enables the gold to melt at lower temperatures. If using this method, when the borax begins to soften, add the gold flakes. Heat until the flakes melt into a bead.
Let it cool, and chip the gold out of the re-solidified borax. Rinse and repeat for any old electronics you find.
And that's a wrap. So, next time you are considering chucking out those old electronics, think twice. They might be little gold mines in disguise!
Elena D'Onghia, an associate professor at UW–Madison, has proposed a new concept for a Halbach Torus (HaT) to help protect astronauts from cosmic radiation.