Electronic waste, or e-waste, is rapidly becoming the fastest-growing source of waste in the world. Gold within e-waste exists in the circuitry of many household electronics such as computer equipment, televisions, screens, cameras, and mobile phones. E-waste is highly toxic, often containing substances such as lead, mercury and cadmium that are fatal to human health and the environment.
The world’s largest producer of e-waste is the United States – with an estimated 7 million tonnes produced annually. Instead of recycling e-waste, which can be costly and time-consuming, much of the waste from the United States is exported and dumped into developing areas across Asia and Africa. Since December 2015, the majority of the 5000 waste workshops within the infamous town of Guiyu in the Guangdong Province have been shut down and scattered and relocated by the Chinese government in Southern China, in efforts to reduce pollution.
Aqua Regia is a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid. It is a yellow-orange fuming liquid and was so named by alchemists because it can dissolve the noble metals gold and platinum. In the third of alchemist, Basil Valentine’s ‘Twelve keys’ a rooster can be seen eating a fox, eating a rooster in the background. The fox represents Aqua Regia.
There are many ways to extract e-waste. In this illegal processing plant near Shenzhen, in Southern China, Aqua Regia is used. In this particular instance the process takes a few hours few hours and they mostly use circuit boards to collect gold:
The circuit boards are crushed into tiny fragments.
Aqua Regia HCI+HNO3 (Hydrochloric and nitric acid) is added to to the crushed circuit board mixture. This process produces Nitrogen dioxide which is heavily toxic.
The solution is then filtered to eliminate silver and palladium.
Excess Aqua Regia must be eliminated by adding ‘Urea’
Sodium Bisulphite is added until the liquid is clear.
The solution is washed and then gently boiled with Cardiolipin (ACL) acid. This is repeated several times until all the additional trace metals have been removed and the liquid is clear.
Leave to settle and then drain off the liquid and dry the sediment in the oven.
Once dry the gold is placed within a borax protected container and heated with a blowtorch, consequently melting and forging the extracted gold together.
After a ring has been designed using the CAD system, a rubber mould is made and then filled with wax. The wax rings are carefully formed into a ‘wax tree’ and then placed into a container of plaster-of-paris. The ‘set’ cast is then heated to melt the wax inside and then the liquid gold is poured in. The plaster is then removed using water jets and the ‘gold tree’ is removed. Rings are then removed with ‘snipers’ before being hand finished and polished.