An oft-asked question is how much gold is in the average cellphone, and while that figure may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, we did some digging to find data on the most common stats.
Sean Magann, vice president of sales and marketing for Sims Recycling Solutions—North America, a division of the global re-use and recycling firm Sims Metal Management, has said more than once that there are 10 troy ounces of gold (or about three-fifths of a pound) per ton of smartphones. Around 10,000 phones weigh one ton.
In 2014, his company recycled 167 ounces of gold from cellphones, the equivalent of about 789 Olympic gold medals.
As the Globe & Mail reports, The World Gold Council's Head of Technology, Trevor Keel, said there is "approximately 25 milligrams of gold generally found in smartphones, roughly worth about $1."
Sims Recycling adds that every year, Americans dump phones that contain more than $60 million US in gold and silver, as Vice notes.
An interesting side-note is that when the average cell is dumped abroad, a lot of the gold and precious metals are lost. Vice adds that in 2011, 190 tons of gold "went into electronic and electrical products, according to Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP), an international initiative hosted by United Nations University. But nearly 50 percent of the gold in e-waste is lost in the dismantling process in developing countries, compared to 25 percent in developed nations."
As for which parts of your phone are made from gold, the circuit board most commonly houses trace amounts of gold. Why? Gold conducts electricity better than copper.
Also, smartphones contain a variety of rare earth elements – elements that are actually plentiful in the Earth’s crust but extremely difficult to mine and extract economically – such as yttrium, lanthanum, terbium, neodymium, gadolinium and praseodymium, as BBC News notes. Essentially, smartphone handset consists of around 40% metals (predominantly copper, gold, platinum, silver and tungsten), 40% plastics and 20% ceramics and trace materials.
A new method to get at gold in cellphones
Last year, chemists revealed a new method to extract gold from cellphones: they first place the phones’ printed circuit boards in a mild acid, which dissolves their metal parts. Then an oily liquid containing the chemical compound is then added, which results in the gold extraction.
Motivating scientists to develop a new method comes from an enviro-friendly outlook. "A lot of mobile phones are shipped to places like Ghana and Bangladesh where they are taken to bits, and certain techniques that are not particularly environmentally friendly are then used to recover the valuable metals,” said Professor Jason Love, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Chemistry. "To me, it seems that there’s a great societal benefit if we’re able to use a process that’s much more environmentally friendly and less toxic."
Recycling gold from phones is also top-of-mind for Olympics organizers in Tokyo. Japan is aiming to create Olympic medals for Tokyo 2020 via donated electronics. Games organizers are asking Japanese firms to offer ideas for recycling strategies to help encourage citizens to donate.
The next time you use your cellphone, you might gain a new appreciation for the gold within your device helping power it to be a better tech tool.