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The hidden story of gold. Where is the gold in e-waste?

The hidden story of gold. Where is the gold in e-waste?

Gold, celebrated throughout history for its beauty and rarity also has certain notable properties that make it indispensable in the production of today’s electronic devices.   

  • Conductivity: Gold is an excellent conductor of electricity, this ensures efficient data transmission and reliable electrical connections.
  • Resistance to corrosion and tarnish: This ensures longevity and durability of the components.
  • Malleability: Gold can be drawn into incredibly fine wires, ideal for creating connections between chip components.
  • Thermal conductivity: A great conductor of heat, gold is used strategically to transfer heat away from sensitive areas.
  • Purity: Any impurities in the materials could disrupt the delicate operations within the electrical systems, golds purity makes it ideally suited to critical components.

But where exactly is the gold in electronics?

The highest quantity of gold in personal electronic devices can usually be found in the CPU (central processing unit). This is closely followed by the Ram and PCI cards. The gold is easily spotted here on the connectors. Look at the pins in the case of CPUS and the “fingers” on Ram and PCI cards, you will see the obvious lustre of gold. It is important to note that the days of these being made from solid gold are long past, most connectors are now merely coated in a very thin layer of gold.

Components of circuit boards, CPU, RAM and PCI slots

Next in terms of gold quantity to size ratio is the PCB (printed circuit board). Often referred to as green boards due to their colour, they form the base for the attachment of CPU, Ram and PCI cards but also contain a fair bit of gold in their own right. The “gold fingers” around the edge, just like RAM and PCI serve as connectors that link different layers of the board together or connect the PCB to other components. Often not visible from the surface, but no less important are the network of gold bonding wires that are used to create electrical connections.

In newer electronics these distinctions between elements are less clear as many PCBs now have all the components fused together requiring less need for connectors and creating a more stable exchange of electrical signals. In fact, in general, the newer the electronic device the lower the amount of gold used, although it is still present, playing just as critical a role.

Gold is also used in some more obscure parts of electronics, in lenses and displays. Gold is often used to enhance the reflective properties of mirrors and prisms in high end devices such as smartphones and digital cameras. In touch screens indium tin oxide coated with a thin layer of gold guarantees the effective touch interactions we have all come to expect from our cell phones.

 The amount of gold used on average in personal electronics

Whilst gold is essential to the functioning of our devices, once those devices reach the end of their lives that gold is often left to flounder in the landfill thanks in part to a shortage of recycling operations, lack of consumer knowledge on the dangers of e-waste and the difficulty of e-waste recycling (disused electronic devices are classified as  hazardous waste). Whilst the amount of gold contained in each electronic device is tiny, 0,03g in the case of an average smartphone, on a global scale the quantities are staggering. Tackling the ever-growing e-waste crisis is a key challenge in sustainable resource management and conservation, one that provides an opportunity, both environmental and economic.

sand and salt

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