With the XXIII Olympic Winter Games starting and a record-breaking 102 gold medals up for grabs this year, it got us thinking about medals…and metals in general. With so many uses from giving them as awards for super athletes, to using them in currency, trade markets, and more recently, electronics, it seems like the demand for precious metals isn’t going anywhere, but the supply is limited, even if the U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are 52,000 tons of minable gold still in the ground.
Especially as more and more gold is moving from the traditional jewelry and currency markets to the technology and electronics industries, less of it is being recycled and reused due to the tiny amounts often found in electronics that make it very difficult to extract and recycle.
That’s where New Zealand-based Mint Innovation and Remarkit Solutions have an edge. Instead of mining precious metals from dangerous countries or striping land of key natural resources that often lead to tremendous pollution, Mint and Remarkit are taking the metals already extracted from the planet and recovering them for reuse. Mint Innovation and Remarkit Solutions signed a partnership agreement to build a commercial facility for metal recovery from electronic waste in New Zealand.
It’s no easy task trying to recover gold and other precious metals from electronics, as many companies have spent years trying to find the magic solution. Pyrometallurgy – incinerating circuit boards to liberate gold and other precious metals – is energy and capital intensive, and releases carcinogenic gases such as dioxins. Hydrometallurgy – using strong acids, cyanide and other chemicals to leach metals – is often toxic and non-recyclable.
But Mint Innovation may have the answer with Biometallurgy – a third way for e-waste processing – and their patented low-cost recovery process that uses inexpensive chemicals and specialist microorganisms to purify precious metals from e-waste. Their proprietary microbes are sourced naturally from the environment, are hyper-selective for the recovery of specific metals, and enable Mint Innovation’s scientists to salvage high value metals like gold, silver and palladium.
According to a fact sheet received from Mint Innovation, the process is low cost, recyclable and scalable, making it an attractive solution for recovering value from a variety of inputs.
Combined with the advantages of low-cost liquid extraction techniques, gold and other precious metals can be quantitatively salvaged from inputs such as electronic waste.
Dr. Will Barker, Mint Innovation’s co-founder and CEO and Lanzatech’s former Vice President of External Affairs, said in their press release, “Our team, led by Dr Ollie Crush, has successfully extracted precious metals on a small scale and it is now time to take the technology further. With Remarkit, we can continue its development in New Zealand. The scaled-up facility in Auckland will initially process up to 200 tonnes of old circuit boards per annum.
Barker said the environmentally benign process was developed in Level Two, the independent technology cluster in Parnell – the birthplace of NZ success stores like LanzaTech and Rocket Lab.
Remarkit is one of New Zealand’s largest e-waste processors and with Mint, they plan to build a plant to demonstrate Mint’s biometallurgy technology at a practical scale. Remarkit set up the first e-waste collections in New Zealand and focuses on keeping computers out of landfills, in the main by repurposing them for a second life. Those that can’t be repurposed however, need to be recycled.
Nathan Bell, Remarkit’s general manager, said in their press release that Mint Innovation’s technology means New Zealand can start to recover and recycle precious metals from e-waste rather than exporting the waste overseas.
“Building this demonstration plant comes at a perfect time when high e-waste generating countries like the United States are seeking solutions now that China has closed its borders to imports of many waste products. China processed about 70% of the world’s e-waste in 2012.
“We have no doubt that this New Zealand technology could rapidly become a leading solution for urban centres throughout the world.”
“We know the Government is keen to keep e-waste out of landfills and New Zealand being named and shamed in a report on e-waste by the UN-funded International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in late last year has certainly sharpened our focus.”
The ITU report said that e-waste around the world contained more than 55 billion euros worth of recoverable materials – including an estimated 19 billion euros of gold.
Having raised NZ$1 million from private and government sources in Q2 2017, Mint Innovation is using much of that money to scale up their process in an e-waste pilot plant at their laboratories in Auckland, New Zealand. Mint’s pilot plant will continue to be optimized through Q1 2018 with the larger demonstration plant to be built in partnership with Remarkit in Q4. Commercial operations are anticipated to commence in 2019.
So while athletes from around the world are going for the gold medals in South Korea right now, Mint Innovation and Remarkit Solutions have already found a way to get their gold metal.