It's fair to say that interest in gold is longstanding. This includes recovering the gold used as a conductor in electronics -- especially cell phones, which use more than laptops.
Gold is considered a particularly good conductor, but much of it is never recovered and reused. There are a number of ways of separating it and other precious metals from electronics, including smelting through chemicals. The latter involves the use of toxic chemicals, such as cyanide, mercury and hydrochloric acid. Ample protection is needed, but the incentive is clear, and how-to videos can get millions of page views.
A ton of cell phones, somewhere in the range of 6,000 actual phones, may contain as much as 300 to 350 grams of gold (that's about 9 to 11 ounces), according to Umicore, in congressional testimony. Umicore is a Brussels-based metals and mining firm.
Gold is now selling for about $1,300 an ounce.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland have come up with a method to selectively separate gold from electronics with chemicals that are "low toxic," said Professor Jason Love, of the university's school of chemistry. He says the chemical processes used today aren't very selective for gold.
The research findings were recently published by Angewandte Chemie, a German peer-review scientific journal.
The electronic parts with gold are placed in a mild acid, which can be a very diluted hydrochloric acid now used by some but in stronger concentrations to separate gold. An oily liquid, which could be something like a kerosene, is added. This oily liquid contains the compound developed by the researchers that selects the gold, transfers it from the acid solution into the oily solvent, where the gold is recovered.
"I think it's important to make sure that we don't just waste these materials, because a lot of time and effort has been made to actually get the materials out of the ground in the first place," said Love. "But not enough effort is actually put into recycling these materials."
It's not yet clear whether this less-caustic recovery process can be translated into a low-cost process that can be used at scale. Recyclers are more likely to use smelters today to recover gold from electronics.
Sean Magann, vice president of Sims Recycling Solutions, is skeptical about the chemical process. Sims uses complex copper smelters to extract gold. The smelters, which take ore from the ground and separate it with other contaminants, are well suited to take on electronics as well. The electronics are sprinkled in with the ore.
Magann says this processing is efficient, and most of the cost is in shipping and handling of the electronics to the smelter.
"If you have to process every pound of material using a chemical, I don't know how you can compete against a smelter," said Magann.
Not surprisingly, the recycling industry is very sensitive to commodity prices.
Bob Houghton, CEO at Sage Sustainable Electronics points out that when oil was $140 a barrel, you could justify the expense of separating plastics from the electronics. Plastics are made from oil.
When oil reached $75 a barrel -- it's now at about $45 a barrel -- "virgin plastics became as competitive as recycled plastics," said Houghton.
Gold prices move sharply as well. In 2012 it was selling for more than $1,800 an ounce, or $500 more than today.