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Extraction of Precious Metal "GOLD" from

Electronic Waste by Chemical Leaching Method

Research October 2015



1 author:

Zaid Ahamd
COMSATS Institute of Information Technol


Available from: Zaid Ahamd

Retrieved on: 03 May 2016
Final Report (CPT II Mini Project)
Extraction of Metals from Electronic Waste

Hafiz Zaid Ahmad (18) , Adnan Khan (04) 1, Ahmad Raza (06) 1,
Haseeb Noman (46) 1, Abeera Mushtaq (02) 1
Department of Chemical Engineering,
COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Defense
Road, 1.5 K.M. off Raiwind Road, Lahore.
Dated: June 29, 2015

The scrap electronic equipment, or simple e-waste, has been taken into consideration worldwide as its
contents include many hazardous materials. The surveys regarding electronic waste projected the
large tonnage of it produced per annum and according to the survey by European Union [1], it is
growing every year by 3-5%. But, what actually drives us to recycle this waste is the recovery of
precious metals like gold, etc. Number of methods, for this purpose, were devised, most important of
which are pyro-metallurgy, hydro-metallurgy, and bio-leaching as highlighted in this paper.

Pyro-metallurgy is the most traditional way for extracting these metals from e-waste but the smelters
used for this extraction process are highly capital intensive. But, in the past 5-10 years,
hydrometallurgical process replaces pyrometallurgy. This include cyanide, halide, thiosulphate and
thiourea leaching of metals. Limitations and advantages over one another of these two processes are
also discussed in the paper.

Bio-leaching has enormous applications for Cu recovery from its ores or other precious metal
extraction processes, however, no sufficient research is carried out on bio-leaching of metals from e-
waste and may be due to the time parameter as takes a very long time by the microbes extract
precious metals. But, a review is presented here using initial researches regarding this process.

Keywords: Electronic waste, metal extraction/recovery, Pyro & Hydro-metallurgical process,

Bio-leaching, Precious metals.

Corresponding Editor Contact: +92-323-
4034492 E-mail Address:
Corresponding Authors - students of B.S. Chemical Engineering at COMSATS Institute
of Information Technology, Lahore.
1. Problem Statement

What is the need of recovery of Electronic waste?

There are many electronics devices being used in our era today including computer products such
as CPUs, desktops and portables, Hard copy devices are printers, digital copiers, scanners, multi-
functions and faxes, Mobile devices are cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs),
smartphones, pagers and TV peripherals, such as VCRs, DVD players, DVRs, cable/satellite
receivers, converter boxes, game consoles are all electronic devices to name a few. According to
a survey, about 20 to 50 million metric tons of E-waste is being generated every year worldwide
. This is due to the fact that technology in electronics are being developed on daily basis which
are more advanced and more user friendly than the last model. This results in people trading their
phones, computers, laptops, TVs for their newer models available.

If we recycle this waste we cannot only save time and energy in production of these metals
but can get about $15,000 worth of precious metals from about a ton of mobile phone waste.
This means that precious metals can be recycled instead of being produced from their ores by
which we can save about 60% of the total energy spent on the purification of the ore.

2. Introduction

Now the above mentioned old discarded electronic products are being disposed of in landfills or
incinerators, where they are not only harmful to soils but they are equally harmful to human
health as they release toxic fumes in the environment. Others than the fumes, we get solid waste
in the form of lead, silver, gold, palladium and many others which get leached when disposed of
using landfilling technique and become a part of water underground and these fractions of metals
make it heavy. Only in America alone about $60 million in gold/silver is going to waste which is
present in Mobile phones. On all the E-waste present in the system only 12.5% is being recycled,
this means about for one million mobile that are not recycled we waste an estimate of over 35000
lbs. of copper, 800 lbs. of silver , 80 lbs. of gold, 30 lbs. of palladium.

In recent years, more and more E-waste is being generated but not only few steps are being
taken to recover the waste matter, we cant only save energy which is being spent in
extraction of metals but we can also make our earth more and more eco-friendly which will
have a positive effect on earth in the long run.

Environmental & Health Problems

There are large no. of components of various sizes, shapes and chemistry in e-waste. Some of
them contain Hg, Pb and Cd which are hazardous metals and these are removed through
separate treatment and recycling processes. The list of few toxic metals present in e-waste
and their harmful impacts on mankind are discussed in table 1.

o Arsenic can affect the cell communication badly and it can react with the triggers that
is responsible for the growth of the cells which may lead to cardiovascular disease,
cancer and diabetes if someone is exposed in chronic, low doses.
o Cadmium effects the ability of the body to metabolize calcium which causes pain in
the bones and make them weak.
o Skin irritation and rashes are caused by chromium and it is carcinogenic too.
o Throats and lungs are affected by copper. Copper also affects liver, kidney and other
organs of the body.
o Lead can affect the verbal activity. Lead exposure causes paralysis, coma and death.
o Large doses of nickel is carcinogenic.
(UNEP, Recycling- From E-Waste to Resource accessed at, on 24 Jan 2014).

Energy & Resource Conservation

The amount of gold recovered from one ton of e-waste consisting of personal computers only
is very much large. It is estimated that this amount is greater than that recovered from 17 ton
of gold ore. Literally, e-waste is a rich source of precious metals (PMs) compared to their
primary ores.

The dumping of e-waste has multiple disadvantages including the pollution of underground
water and soil, and wasting a big source of valuable metals. In order to meet the
environmental norms for hazardous waste disposal and conservation of natural resources
globally, there is a rising anxiety for the safe recycling of e-waste with greater usage of
electronic and electrical gadgets and devices.

Table 1 Toxic metals present in e-waste and their harmful impacts on mankind [2]
Figure 1 - Concentration of various metals present in E waste; (a) heavy metal, (b) precious metal [2]

Table 2 - Metals present in various types of E-waste [2]

3. Literature Review
Now a days, the different techniques that can be adopted for extraction of precious metals are
mechanical processing, pyro-metallurgy, hydro-metallurgy, bio-leaching or a combination of
these techniques, with main focus on extraction of gold, chemical and hydro-metallurgical
processes must be adopted.
According to Cui and Zhang [3] recycling of e-waste can be divided into three main steps.
a) Disassembly-mechanical pretreatment: it is separation of hazardous and precious
components which is the necessary step for further operation purposes. b) Concentrating:
increasing the concentration of desirable components using different mechanical and
metallurgical processing c) Refining: metallurgical treatment and purification of desired
precious metals. Now precious metals include gold as well which is our main focus. In e-
waste, gold is mostly found in printed circuit boards (PCBs) and chips in electrical and
electronic equipment. Sheng and Etsell [3] have worked in gold extraction from computer
chip through leaching.

Specifically the developed countries are working on the recycling of metals from the electronic
wastes like South Africa and Tanzania. They are working on the recovery of metals from different
processes. The table which are given below are the processes which are used currently.

Table 3 Different Processing Techniques & Their Usefulness

Process Energy use Metal reclamation Environmental
Grinding (shredding) Low High High
Incineration High None High
Pyro metallurgical Low High Large energy
recovery required
Thermal de- High None Low. Process is
polymerization efficient
Plasma arc gasification High None Low. Process is
Bio-Leaching Low High Very low energy

4. Plausible & Selected Methodologies

4.1. Pyro-Metallurgy

It is the thermal treatment of waste/scrap and concentration of it to bring the physical and the
chemical changes. Then, we transform it so that to enable the recovery of the precious metals.
But it is not economical. It usually involves the processes of CALCINING, ROASTING,
SMELTING, AND REFINING. Calcining refers to the thermal decomposition of the
materials and is carried out in different furnaces. Roasting involves the reactions of solid-gas
phases, oxidation, reduction, chlorination, sulfation, and pyro-hydrolysis. Smelting also
involve thermal reactions but at least one product is in molten state here. The refining part
covers the removal of impurity, but as it involve the high investment, the attention is now
mostly diverted to the hydro-metallurgical processes for the recycling of e-waste.

From the past two decades, pyro-metallurgical processing has been used as most traditional
method for the recovery of precious metals from e-waste. It includes incineration, smelting in
plasma arc furnace or a blast furnace, drossing, sintering, melting and reactions in a gas phase
at high temperatures [3]. The waste/scrap is first crushed and then burned in furnace or
molten bath to remove plastics, whereas, the refractory oxides form a slag phase together
with some metal oxides.
4.1.1. NORANDA Process

Veldbuizen and Sippel [3] describes the process. According to an estimate, about 100,000 tons of
e-waste is being recycled by smelters. Raw materials dipped in a molten metal bath at the
temperature of 1250C enter the reactor, and is agitated by a supercharged air mixture (up to 39%
O2). The combustion of plastics and other flammables during the feeding process gives energy
efficient process. Due to the agitation with the oxygen, the harmful impurities like Zn, Pb, and Fe
convert into their oxides and then become fixed in a silica-based slag. Cooling and milling of slag
is also done to recover some more metals before fully disposed of. The Cu matte contains PMs
and is removed and passed on to the converters. Liquid blister copper is refined in the anode
furnaces achieving highest purity of 99.1%. The remaining 0.9% of copper matte contains PMs
that include silver, gold, palladium, platinum, etc. This technique is being practiced at Quebec,
Canada and named as NORANDA process.

4.1.2. RONNSKAR Smelters Process

Another application of pyro-metallurgical processing of e-waste is being practices at Sweden and

is named as Ronnskar smelter [3] as shown in the figure 2. Wastes can be fed to the process
equipment in different steps depending on the difference in purity levels. Wastes containing high
concentration of copper is directly fed to the converters. Whereas, low grade scrap is fed into
Kaldo furnace. The oxygen required for combustion with an oil-oxygen burner is provided by
oxygen lance. Off-gases are exposed to additional combustion air at around 1200C during the
post-combustion process. Thermal energy can be recovered by a steam network. In Kaldo
furnace, a mixed copper alloy is produced that is further converted for the recovery of precious
metals and the dusts are sent to some other equipment to recover Pb, Sn, Cd, etc.

Figure 2 - Schematic Diagram for the Ronnskar Smelting Process [3]

4.1.4. Limitations of Pyro-Metallurgical Processes

Pyro-metallurgical routes are usually more economics and eco-friendly and maximize the
recovery of PMs but they have certain limitations described below [4]:
o Recovery of plastic is not possible as it is partially replaced by coke
o Fe and Al recovery is difficult as they both end up forming oxides in slag phase
o Smelting causes hazardous emissions such as dioxins. Thus, special installation are
required to minimize environmental pollution
o An e-waste recycling plant that maximize the recovery of valuable metals needs large
capital investment
o Ceramic fractions in the feedstock can increase volume of slag produced in blast
o Subsequent hydro-metallurgical and electro-chemical techniques are required to extra
pure metals from BMs
o Thermodynamically aspects of handling the smelting and refining processes is complex

4.2. Hydro-Metallurgy (Selected Technique)

Figure 3 Types of Hydro-Metallurgical Techniques [2]

In hydro-metallurgical process the above given process may involve in the extraction of
precious metals, which consist of acid or caustic leaches of materials. All the sub-classes are
defined above.

Discussing the main steps of chemical leaching, the following routes are required for the
extraction of e-waste: The starting material contained 27.37% copper, 0.52% silver, 0.06%
gold and 0.04% palladium. This material was crushed with a duty cutting mill and the
crushed matter was separated into four groups with particle size as: +1.168 mm, 1.168 + 0.6
mm, 0.6 + 0.3 mm and 0.3 mm. The first one is the cyanide leaching.
4.2.1. Cyanide Leaching

In cyanide leaching, the following reactions may involve:

4Au + 8CN 4 Au (CN) +4e (1)
O2 + 2H2O + 4e 4OH
The cyanide solution percolate to the ore which contained in columns or heaps. Gold is
dissolved by the cyanide and then removed from the heap or columns. This is then extracted
from the leach solution by adsorption of carbon. This cost-effective, proven method of ore
extraction provides maximum recovery for many gold ores, including low grade and some
refractory ores. Heap leaching facilitates the profitable extraction of gold from very low
grade ore.
Prior to heap leaching, crushed ore is heaped into structures 10 to 20m. A dilute cyanide
solution is sprayed on the heap, percolates through the pile and dissolves the available gold.
The solution is then directed into a pond. The cyanide solution, which is said to be
pregnant with gold, is then pumped through columns where the gold is recovered.
Activated carbon effectively removes the gold from the cyanide.

Table 4 Primary, secondary and tertiary merits of use of cyanide for metal leaching [5]

4.2.2. Halide Leaching

In halide leaching Gold makes both Au (I) and Au (III) complexes with chloride, bromide
and iodide depending on the solution chemistry conditions.

2HNO3 + 6HCl 2NO + 4H2O + 3Cl2

2Au + 11HCl + 3HNO3 2HAuCl4 + 3NOCl + 6H2O

4.2.3. Thiourea Leaching

The thiourea ((NH2)2CS) leaching is considerable for the extraction of gold. In acidic
conditions, thiourea dissolves gold, forming a cationic complex; the reaction is rapid and
gold extractions of up to 99% can be achieved.
2+ -
Au + 2CS (NH2)2 Au (CS (NH2)2) +e

4.2.4. Thiosulphate Leaching

Thiosulfate is used widely in photography and in the pharmaceutical industries. This is the
substitute for the cyanide. The Gold is dissolved in the ammonical thiosulfate solution with the
presence of cupric ions. This mechanism of gold leaching was determined by the Aylomore and
Nir. It is also known as the electrochemical-catalytic mechanism. It was proposed that Cu
(NH3)4 species present in solution acquires electrons on the cathodic portion of the gold
surface and is directly reduced to Cu (NH3) . At the same time, either ammonia or
thiosulfate ions react with Au+ ions on the anodic surface of gold then they entre the solution
2+ 3-
to form either Au (NH3) or Au (S2O3)2 .

2+ 3- 5-
Au + 5S2O32- + Cu (NH3)4 Au (S2O3) 2 + 4NH3 + Cu (S2O3) 3

2+ - 2-
2Cu (S2O3)5-3 + 8NH3 + O2 + H2O 2Cu (NH3) 4 + 2OH + 6S2O3

4.2.5. Chemical Leaching Involving Ligands

Chemical Leaching involving complex geometry can be performed for the extraction of
metals, where metals attached with ligands to form complex. The chelating agents used for
this purpose are given in the table 6. EDTA (a strong chelating agent) can be used for metal
extraction either from ores or from e-wastes.

Table 5 Type of metals recovered from e-waste using hydro-metallurgical techniques [2]
4.2.6. Sulphuric Acid Leaching

In this technique, the PCBs were cut into 7 cm 7 cm size after removal of electronic parts
from their surface and then immersed in a beaker containing the swelling organic. The
solution was heated and kept overnight. The outer layers of PCBs containing soldering
material were separated after removing the swelled material, as shown in Figure A, and the
layer of metal sheets encapsulated below was removed one by one.
The sheets were dried after washing with hot water to remove the entrapped organic. The
sheets were further cut to size ~ 0.5 cm - 0.7 cm and 0.5 mm thick containing 74.76% Cu,
0.48% Pb, 0.52% Sn as shown in Figure B.

Figure A Figure B

For experimental purposes crushed PCBs of thickness 23 mm and sizes 1.01.5 cm containing
17.05% Cu, 4.35% Pb, 8.32% Sn, 0.74% Ni, and 1.74% Fe and the swelled PCBs discussed
above were used. Leaching studies were made to extract copper from both the samples.
Atmospheric leaching was carried out using crushed PCBs in a temperature controlled glass
reactor, where the sample pieces were put in three necked Pyrex reactor, along with leachant in a
particular ratio and heated to a desired temperature, using hot plate with stirrer. Pressure leaching
was carried out with both the crushed and the liberated samples with different concentration of
dilute sulfuric acid and hydrogen peroxide in an autoclave (Parr Instrument Company, USA).
Samples were taken at regular interval of time and analyzed using an atomic absorption
spectrophotometer. Once leaching was completed, the residue left was dried in a vacuum oven.
Satisfactory mass balance was obtained for each set of leaching experiment.

4.2.7. Aqua Regia

Aqua regia leaching was selected by Sheng and Etsell for recovery of gold from computer
chips due to its flexibility, ease and low capital requirement. Gold leaching involved three
stages. During stage I, computer chips were separated from the printed circuit boards by
leaching. Stage-I leaching was conducted in nitric acid systems, in which the effects of acid
concentration, temperature, pulp density and retention time were investigated. After stage-I
leaching, the computer chips and coagulated epoxy resin were mechanically crushed. Stage II
leaching used the optimized parameters from stage-I. The third stage leach dissolved metallic
gold with aqua regia from the second stage leach computer chip residue. The parameters,
such as temperature, pulp density, and retention time, were studied. It was concluded that
higher temperatures tend to give faster leaching rates of gold. The amount of aqua regia
required for complete immersion of the computer chips was approximately 2ml per gram of
computer chips. Increasing aqua regia beyond this ratio did not increase the leaching rate of
gold. Agitation was unnecessary for gold leaching in the aqua regia solution. The self-
induced agitation brought about by the release of nitrous oxide and chlorine vapors caused
bubbling and frothing of the aqua regia solution. [6]

Table 6 Summary of hydrometallurgical recovery of PMs from E-waste [7]

4.3. Bioleaching

4.3.1. Mechanisms of Bacterial Metal Sulfide Oxidation

The study on bacterial leaching and its mechanism have been remained in consideration and
discussion for long time [8-11]. There are two routes of mechanism through which micro-
organism can increase the rate of leaching from metallic mineral ore.
a) Direct action mechanism: in this mechanism microorganisms directly oxidize the
minerals and got soluble in metals. The reaction in simplified form is:
MS + H2SO4 +0.5O2 MSO4 +S0
+H2O S0 +1.5O2 +H2O H2SO4
b) Indirect action mechanism: in this mechanism ferric ions(Fe+) oxidize the minerals
and microorganisms regenerate the ferric(Fe+3) ion to ferrous(Fe+2) reaction can be
as fellow:
MS + 2Fe3+ M2+ +2Fe2+ +S0
2Fe2+ +0.5O2 +2H+ 2Fe3+ +H2O
But it concluded [12] the both of above mentioned reactions mechanism as well as
physiochemical can involve in the overall process. Sand and co-workers [13] have proposed
the pathway of indirect leaching from bacterial metallic sulfides.
According to two these researcher there can be two routes for leaching: thiosulfate and the
polysulfide pathways. In general, dissolution is carried out by proton attack as well as
oxidation process, the mechanism is based on mineral species nature [14]. But crystal
structures are responsible for dissolution mechanism e.g. mono-sulfide and disulfide. The
reactivity of metallic sulfide with proton is important due to electronic configuration [15].

Figure 4 Bioleaching Mechanism [2]

4.3.2. Bioleaching for treatment of E-waste

Faramarzi et al. reported their preliminary investigation on the feasibility of recovery of gold
from PCBs by bioleaching process. PCBs were obtained in size 5mm*10mm, with each piece
containing approx. 10mg of gold. He studied that gold can be microbially solubilized from
PCBs. The maximum dicyanoaurate dissolved 14.9% of the gold initially added.

The leaching experiments carried out in a mixed culture of Thiobacillus ferrooxidans and T.
thiooxidans on e-waste showed that the presence of large amounts of waste led to an increase
in the initial pH due to the alkalinity of e-waste. To reduce toxic effects on the micro-
organisms, a two-step process was introduced. In the first step, biomass was produced in the
absence of e-waste. Subsequently, electronic scrap was introduced in different concentrations
and the cultures were incubated for an additional time period. [2]

The bioleaching results showed that (figure 9) for waste concentrations of 5 and 10 g/L,
respectively, Thiobacilli were able to leach more than 90% of the available Al, Cu, Ni, and
Zn. At larger concentration, metals mobility was reduced, especially for Al and Cu. Ni and
Zn showed much better results with mobilization of 60% and 95%, respectively.
Table 7 Involvement of different microbes for the recovery of metals from E-waste [2]

Table 8 Merits & Demerits of Chemical & Bioleaching (taking case of Cu hydrometallurgy)
5. Experimental Work:

o Use the retarded processors as a basic raw material.

o Remove the pins containing gold either by filing or we can directly crush the
processors in a ball mill.
o With filing, there is a need to screen the pins to separate out the unnecessary
components of the processors like mini transistors.
o Now, make a leaching solution containing 50% nitric acid, 25% sulphuric acid and
25% water by volume. All the chemicals used are of commercial grade.
o Add this solution in a plastic vessel and add the gold pins and processors. Add
carefully in a small portions as it is a very corrosive reaction. If there are processors,
we need to add hydro fluoric acid (HF) in small portions to remove glass protective
layers so that acid can dissolve all the base metals. The fluoric acid must be added in
the same leaching solution made above.
o Provide residence time of at least 48 hours so that all the metal content can be
dissolved in a solution.
o After the completion of the above reaction, filter the solution in a separate vessel.
Separate the residue from the filter paper.
o In this residue, add concentrated HCl in it and then add hydrogen peroxide that acts as
a catalyst and the whole residue will get dissolved in solution.
o Filter the above solution again.
o Now, make 25% solution of sodium thiosulphate (250 grams dissolved in 1000 ml
water). Add this solution slowly in the gold solution this reaction is also very
corrosive you will see the pure gold precipitated at the bottom.
o If we are dealing with crushed processors, then this solution contain silver so add
saturated solution of salt in it and the silver will be precipitated as silver chloride
which can be melted easily.
o Again filter the precipitated solution of gold. It is in the form of chlorides or
o Now, we need to perform cementing so that the gold melt can be obtained in pure
o Weight this obtained gold and perform calculations for more optimized results.

Revised Procedure:
o Add gold pins to the beaker.
o Add equal amounts of HCl and H2O in that beaker so that the material get fully
dissolved in it.
o Heat the solution so that it starts bubbling.
o Add nitric acid equal to 1/3rd of the HCl used.
o Wait till the gold get dissolved in it.
o Add SMB i.e. Sodium Meta Bisulfate in that solution.
o Give residence time of 24 hrs. so that the precipitates can be formed.

For Experiment 1:
o Leaching Solution: 16.25ml HNO3, 8.125 ml H2SO4 and 8.125 ml water.
o Solid to Liquid Ratio: 1:5 (for leaching solution)
o CuSO4 may form in the leaching solution with large enough residence times.
o Ratio of HCl and H2O2 used: 2:1
o Product cant be weighed because of carbon black impurity.

For Experiment 2:
o Leaching Solution: 25ml HNO3, 12.5 ml H2SO4 and 12.5 ml water.
o Solid to Liquid Ratio: 1:5 (for leaching solution)
o Residence Time for leaching: until bubbling in the solution takes place
o Ratio of HCl and H2O2 used: 2:1
o HCl used: 40ml ; H2O2 used: 20ml
o Gold obtained in compound form: 0.5 grams
o Cementing of gold obtained has yet to be done to remove chlorides or any other
compound forms. On burning, the material gives the characteristic green color
indicating the removal of chlorine gas.

For Experiment 3:
o Gold Pins = 15g
o HCl and Water used = 40 ml both
o Nitric Acid = 13.4 ml
o SMB = 10g
o Gold Chlorides Obtained = 3.2 grams

o As, we are dealing with concentrated chemicals, care must be taken in order to
avoid any direct contact with the skin.
o All reactions are very much corrosive.
o All the reactions must be carried out inside a fume hood.
o During cementing, set the ratio of oxy acetylene flame correctly because
larger concentration of acetylene gas gives dense smoky flame. So, the carbon
coming out with smoke get deposited on the gold melt and causes impurity.
6. Bibliography

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3. Jirang Cui and Lifeng Zhang, Metallurgical Recovery of Metals from Electronic
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4. Hagelken, C. Improving Metal Returns and Eco-Efficiency in Electronics
RecyclingA Holistic Approach for Interface Optimization between Pre-Processing
and Integrated Metals Smelting and Refining. In Proceedings of the IEEE International
Symposium on Electronics and the Environment, Scottsdale, AZ, USA, 811 May 2006.

5. Viraja Bhat, Prakash Rao and Yogesh Patil, Development of an Integrated Model to
Recover Precious Metals from Electronic Scrap - A Novel Strategy for E-Waste
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by Two indirect mechanisms via thiosulfate or via polysulfides and
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