Researchers Use Ultrasound to Recover Gold from Electronic Scrap

The last few months have been ripe with reports on new research related to material recovery from electronic scrap (commonly referred to as “e-scrap” or “e-waste”), as highlighted in a previous post. I’ve learned of yet another exciting innovation in this field, thanks to a feature written by Jared Paben in the latest edition (4/19/18) of E-Scrap News.

As Paben reports, researchers from Sandia National Laboratories have developed a method to use ultrasonic waves, coupled with surfactants, to cheaply and efficiently recover gold from scrap electronics. Their experiments involved application of two different surfactants to the surface of a cell phone SIM card, which was then submerged in water. Ultrasonic waves were applied, which imploded micro-bubbles on the SIM card’s surface. Upon collapse of these micro-bubbles, micro-jets ejected gold nanoparticles from the card’s surface, and the nanoparticles were captured and stabilized by the surfactants.

According to the research group’s paper, published in the journal Small on 3/24/18), this mechanical method may not only present an effective way of reclaiming gold and other metals from electronic scrap, but could potentially be used to manufacture gold nanoparticles from native gold metal directly upon recovery from mining, which they say “may represent the greenest possible approach to nanoparticle synthesis.” (Citation: J. Watt, M. J. Austin, C. K. Simocko, D. V. Pete, J. Chavez, L. M. Ammerman, D. L. Huber, Small 2018, 1703615.

You can read more about this research in a 4/3/18 article from New Scientist.

To learn about cavitation and cavitation bubbles, the phenomena which allow this mechanical process to work, see and

For more information on gold in electronics, see How Much Gold is in Smartphones and Computers? and Uses of Gold in Industry, Medicine, Computers, Electronics, Jewelry.

To learn about the properties and applications of gold nanoparticles, see

US Federal Legislation Page Updated on SEI Web Site

Photo of US Capitol BuildingThe US Federal Legislation page on the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) web site has been recently updated. Updates include:

Visit the SEI Law & Policy section for full details on these US Federal measures, as well as information for the US state and local level and international policies. To suggest additions or revisions to the Law & Policy pages, contact Joy Scrogum.

International Sustainable Electronics Competition: Sponsorship Opportunities

Donations are being accepted to support the International Sustainable Electronics Competition, part of the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC). These donations are used for cash prizes in the competiiton and program administrative costs. There are five sponsorship levels: “Friend” is for donations up to $99; “Bronze” signifies gifts of $100 to $499; “Silver” donations are from $500 to $1499; “Gold” sponsors have provided $1500 to $4999 in support; and “Platinum” designates sponsors that have contributed $5000 or more. As a donor, you will be acknowledged on the competition web site unless you wish to remain anonymous. Corporations and organizations will have their logos and a link to their web site featured on the competition web site.

The competition began in 2009 as a local event on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and grew out of a class on e-waste issues taught by UIUC industrial design professor William Bullock. Participants focused on reuse of electronic scrap to make new products that first year. The event became international in 2010 with submission and judging occurring online. This continues currently, with entries including a brief YouTube video of the concept, among other requirements. The competition categories have evolved over time to include prevention as well as reuse, and for 2013, the categories have changed to “Product” and “Non-Product” to make the multidisciplinary nature and whole life-cycle focus of SEI more apparent. See our previous post, “International Sustainable Electronics Competition: New Name, New Categories, New Criteria” for further information on the changes for 2013 and the competition web site for complete rules, requirements, and videos for previous years’ winners. Also, check out the recently finalized list of expert jurors for 2013.

Each year, SEI staff members are amazed and inspired by the interesting and innovative ideas put forth by competition participants. It makes us proud to be part of this unique educational experience, which prompts college students and recent graduates throughout the world–society’s future leaders–to learn about and propose solutions for the environmental and social issues associated with our ubiquitous electronic devices. So consider even a modest $15 donation to show your support for inspiring students to conceive of new, more environmentally responsible ways to design, manufacture, use, and manage electronics. Contact Joy Scrogum (217-333-8948) for more information or see

Jury Finalized for 2013 International Sustainable Electronics Competition

 The jurors for this year’s International Sustainable Electronics Competition (formerly known as the International E-Waste Design Competition) have been announced. Returning again this year are past participants Bill Olson, Director of the Office of Sustainability and Stewardship for Mobile Devices Business, Motorola, Inc., and Jason Linnell, Executive Director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER). They are joined this year by: UIUC alum and President of HOBI International, Inc., Craig Boswell; competition founder, UIUC Professor of Industrial Design in the School of Art + Design and ISTC Affiliated Faculty Scientist, William Bullock; Executive Director of the Northeast Recycling Council and Program Manager for the State Electronics Challenge, Lynn Rubinstein; and CEO of iFixit and Dozuki, Kyle Wiens. For complete juror bios, see

Registration is free and opens September 1, 2013. Participants are asked to explore solutions to remediate the existing e-waste problem, prevent e-waste generation in the future, and foster a more sustainable system for electronic device development, use, and management. Submissions include a project description, brief YouTube video, and bibliography. See the competition Rules for complete details on eligibility, categories, judging criteria, and submission requirements. Cash prizes will be awarded to the top three entries in each of two categories. For more information on participating, incorporating the competition into a class, or sponsoring the competition, contact Joy Scrogum via email or at 217-333-8948.

International Sustainable Electronics Competition: New Name, New Categories, New Criteria

The International E-Waste Design Competition has changed its name, categories, & judging criteria. The competition, now known as the International Sustainable Electronics Competition, is part of the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC). It originated in 2009, when it emerged from a class on e-waste issues taught by industrial design Professor William Bullock, an affiliated faculty scientist at ISTC. The competition was focused entirely on reuse of electronic scrap during that first year. What began as a local UIUC event became an international competition in 2010, with submissions being made online by college students and recent graduates from around the world. The competition has evolved a bit each year, and grew to incorporate the entire life cycle of electronics, rather than focusing solely on reuse. Organizers noticed that recent entries seemed to incorporate both prevention of e-waste generation (through design modifications to extend the useful product life cycle of electronic devices) and reuse of electronic scrap, regardless of whether or not they were submitted for the “Prevention” or “Reuse” category. So for 2013, categories have been changed to “Product” and “Non-Product,” with the concepts of prevention and reuse integrated throughout the revised judging criteria. The new name and judging criteria are part of the continuing effort to better focus the competition on ideas for a sustainable system for the design, manufacturing, use, and end-of-life management for electronics. The competition has always been open to students in any discipline, but most entries were from engineering or industrial design students. The new categories will make the multidisciplinary nature of the competition more apparent, as “non-product” entries could more obviously be made by students from other fields.

To learn more about the competition and new categories, visit Entries include, among other elements, a brief project description paper and YouTube video summarizing the concept. Expert jurors award cash prizes to the top three projects in each category. Registration is free and will open on September 1, 2013. For more information, contact Joy Scrogum at or 217-333-8948.

Call for Papers: “Electronic Waste–Impact, Policy and Green Design”

Challenges logoSEI’s Professor William Bullock and Joy Scrogum will guest edit a special issue of the journal Challenges, entitled “Electronic Waste–Impact, Policy and Green Design.”  From the issue’s rationale:

“Electronics are at the heart of an economic system that has brought many out of poverty and enhanced quality of life. In Western society in particular, our livelihoods, health, safety, and well being are positively impacted by electronics. However, there is growing evidence that our disposal of electronics is causing irreparable damage to the planet and to human health, as well as fueling social conflict and violence.

While global demand for these modern gadgets is increasing, policy to handle the increased volumes of electronic waste has not kept pace. International policy governing safe transfer, disposal, reclamation, and reuse of electronic waste is nonexistent or woefully lacking. Where laws do exist about exporting and importing hazardous waste, they are routinely circumvented and enforcement is spotty at best. While European Union countries lead the way in responsible recycling of electronic and electrical devices under various EU directives, most industrialized nations do not have such policies. In the U.S., for example, most electronic waste is still discarded in landfills or ground up for scrap.

It is imperative that we consider how green design practices can address the growing electronic waste problem. This special issue is meant to do just that and spur discussions on how electronic products can become greener and more sustainable.”

If you are interested in submitting a paper for this special issue, please send a title and short abstract (about 100 words) to the Challenges Editorial Office at, indicating the special issue for which it is to be considered. If the proposal is considered appropriate for the issue, you will be asked to submit a full paper. Complete instructions for authors and an online submission form for the completed manuscripts are available on the Challenges web site at The deadline for manuscript submissions is June 1, 2013.

Greening the Gift of Gadgets

It’s the holiday season, and odds are many people are out frantically shopping for last minute gifts, many of which will involve electronics of some sort. If you’re giving the gift of gadgets this year, here are a few things to keep in mind.

First, and always, consider–do you or the loved one in mind really NEED the new device, or does an existing device serve the person’s purposes adequately? Will it improve your life in a substantial way, or is this a status symbol? In Western culture in particular, there’s a push to have the latest and greatest gadget. A new version of a device is released and thousands flock to purchase it, even if they barely use half the features on the older version of the device which they already own. There’s a perception that one needs the latest version in order to keep up with new technology, or at least to keep up appearances, and all too often the actual functionality of a device and how it fits a person’s specific situation and needs, is lower on the list of purchasing considerations. Consumers can be fickle, and can suffer from app envy. Stop for a minute and think about this. Watch The Story of Stuff. Then watch The Story of Electronics.

If you still feel compelled to buy, are you able to buy a used version of the device? What about a refurbished version? Many electronics retailers offer refurbished versions of devices for slightly lower prices, which operate just as well as a brand new device. My refurbished wireless router at home is a fine example of the reliability of such items. It’s always desirable to see products reused as much as possible before recycling. Any way in which the product lifecycle can be extended is positive in terms of environmental impacts.See this HowStuffWorks article on How Refurbished Electronics Work.

If for whatever reason a used or refurbished version isn’t an option, take some time to consider the environmental ratings of the products and brands you’re considering. Helpful consumer guides include the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, the latest version of which was just released in November 2012. , and the Good Guide (although currently, the Good Guide only ranks cell phones according to environmental, social, and health criteria). Always look for ENERGY STAR rated devices which will operate more efficiently. Such devices will have the ENERGY STAR logo on them, and you can do some research ahead of time on the program’s web site. Determine whether or not the device you’re interested in is EPEAT registered. EPEAT stands for Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, and involves standards for categorizing electronic products at various levels based upon a variety of environmental considerations. The category standards for a given device category are developed with the input of various stakeholders, including those involved in electronics development and purchasing, as well as representatives from governments, environmental advocacy organizations and academia. Contrary to common misconception, EPEAT is a voluntary registry, not a certification in which a third-party issues a product its stamp of approval, as evidenced by Apple’s voluntary decision earlier in the year to remove certain products from the registry, and subsequently voluntarily choose to add them back after public outcry over this decision and criticism related to designs for certain products that made them more difficult to disassemble and/or recycle. See for more on that. Even so, if a product meets EPEAT standards, you can feel confident that its environmental impact has been carefully considered throughout its lifecycle. See this infographic for more on the environmental benefits of EPEAT rated products. Raise Hope for Congo ranks companies on their efforts towards using and investing in conflict-free minerals. (See the “Conflict Minerals” post category of this blog for more information on what conflict minerals are and why they’re important.)

Once you’ve dutifully done that homework, you should be ready to buy, right? Well, if you’re in the U.S., maybe you should further consider whether or not your state has electronics product legislation on the books. See the State & Local page of the SEI web site Law & Policy section to find out and have a summary of the type of law your state has, the devices covered, and a link to the full text of the legislation. Why does this matter? Well, some states (like Illinois, for example) require manufacturers to register or submit recycling plans with a state agency prior to being allowed to sell their products within that state. It’s all part of efforts to ensure that certain electronic devices don’t end up in landfills and that manufacturers are supporting the end-of-life management of their own products (see As a recent article in a National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER) newsletter pointed out, some brands are not compliant with state laws. You might want to buy a certain brand because of great holiday deals being offered–but maybe those products aren’t even supposed to be sold in your state! It’s worth checking the NCER resources related to this.

You’ve waded through all these environmental considerations and are feeling good about your choices. The new gadget is wrapped and ready for giving. But then you remember–what should your loved one do with their old device? There are many different options, and what is available to you will depend on your location. A good place to start is the SEI fact sheet on Electronics Take-Back and Donation Programs. A quick way to check for options in your area is to visit the Earth911 web site. And you can always contact your county or municipal recycling coordinator–he or she will be able to tell you whether or not there are collection events offered in your area, and which local retailers and recyclers accept electronics for recycling.

Now for extra points—how environmentally friendly was the gift wrap you used? 🙂

Happy holidays from SEI!

GreenBiz Series on Conflict Minerals Continues

The latest entry in the series on conflict minerals has been published, entitled “Industry, government team up for conflict-free mineral markets.” The series is being written by Patricia Jurewicz, the Director for the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN). RSN is a project of As You Sow, a nongovernmental organization that  “promotes environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy, coalition building, and innovative legal strategies.” In this latest installment, Jurewicz highlights industry efforts to trace and maintain conflict-free supply chains, while also contributing positively to Congolese communities.

The series began in late August, 2012, and is a response to the recent U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) vote to adopt Section 1502, a provision of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. That rule requires manufacturers to trace their supply chains and disclose whether or not the tin, tantalum, tungsten, or gold used in their products come from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or an adjoining country. For more information on this rule and links to the previous installments in the GreenBiz series, see my previous post on the series. Featuring Series on SEC Conflict Mineral Reporting Rule

The popular online source for sustainable news and resources related to business,, is featuring a four-part series of articles on compliance with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule Section 1502. The SEC recently voted to adopt Section 1502, a controversial rule which is a provision of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The rule requires manufacturers to trace their supply chains and disclose whether or not the tin, tantalum, tungsten, or gold used in their products come from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or an adjoining country. These minerals are referred to as “conflict minerals” because militant groups within DRC use violence (rape and other gender based violence, as well as murder and other atrocities) to control miners within that country, which include women and children. The purchase of conflict minerals from DRC funds a war between the government and rebel militias over control of the country’s mines. Controlling those mines means power because those minerals are used within virtually all electronic products that we use in today’s world. What makes the rule controversial is what some groups have called a “loophole” that allows companies to declare the source of these minerals as indeterminable; flexibility is also allowed on scrap and recycled minerals. For more information on the recent SEC vote and the controversy, see the GreenBiz article “SEC’s conflict minerals vote comes under fire.” For more information on conflict minerals in general, see the previous SEI blog post entitled “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” as well as the Raise Hope for Congo web site. Read the text of the final rule (Section 1502) here.

The first article in the GreenBiz series was published on 8/30/12 and is entitled “Full disclosure: How SEC’s conflict mineral rule could affect you.”  It was written by Patricia Jurewicz, the Director for the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN). RSN is a project of As You Sow, a nongovernmental organization that  “promotes environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy, coalition building, and innovative legal strategies.” This article discusses what companies will have to report on and how, discusses room for interpretation of the SEC rules, and provides a list of products (not just electronics) that contain conflict minerals.

The latest article in the series, also by Patricia Jurewicz, is entitled “Tackling tungsten, tin: Choosing tools for conflict mineral reports.” This article discusses systems and tools used to facilitate the reporting process in compliance with Section 1502. Included at the end of the article are links to possible software solutions that manufacturers may wish to explore to help track their supply chain.

Watch for subsequent articles, and keep an eye out for future SEI blog posts related to conflict minerals and supply chain management.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction

When consumers purchase electronics, they have usually been considering which new gadget to buy for a while. For example, when upgrading phones, consumers may shop at different wireless companies, comparing and contrasting the look, feel, features, and quality of what will soon be their new toy. All of us have been there! I became a Blackberry enthusiast (and that is putting it lightly) about two years ago. I was browsing for new phones that would meet my phone expectations, but that would also have that new pizazz and would almost have that “new phone smell.” After a few months of research, I headed to my wireless company and picked up my new little electronic bundle of joy! I was more excited than words can describe about my new, shiny, red, perfectly wonderful and could-do-no-wrong Blackberry. It was a simple transaction, I hand over my money and sign a renewal contract with the company, and I receive my lovely new gadget! What could be wrong about that?

To answer my own question: conflict materials! In short, conflict materials are earth elements that are necessary for many electronic applications. For example, these materials keep your electronics from overheating, help materials maintain an electronic charge, or make the “vibrate” function of your phone possible. Elizabeth Dias of Time Magazine wrote “First Blood Diamonds, Now Blood Computers?,” explaining why these materials are referred to as “conflict materials.” Unfortunately, the trade of these materials is controlled by militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The money used to purchase the conflict materials has been used to fuel a gruesome war within the DRC, where miners (including women and children) are forced to work long hours under horrible conditions. The miners live in fear, as armed guards watch over them. In addition, the militia is also taxing their workers an exorbitant amount, making their livelihoods continuously dependent on harsh working and living conditions. The powers in charge not only use their power to exploit the workers of DRC, but they also use extreme violence and fear tactics to intimidate workers. Most people living in militia-controlled regions live in fear of their lives, as massacres of entire families as well as brutal rapes are a common practice. Lydia Polgreen and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times have additionally published articlesCongo’s Riches, Looted by Renegade Troops” and “Death by Gadget,” respectively, to shed light to this problem.

Similar to my previous post titled “Future of electronics after 2012,” I am not only concerned about what the problems are. Instead, I am interested in possible solutions. Jeffrey Davis of Green Lifestyle Magazine published “Conflict Materials in Electronics” where he explains the current problem with conflict materials. Furthermore, he discusses possible solutions. An obvious recommendation many have is for manufacturers to stop purchasing “conflict materials.” This action, however, could result in more violence as the militia would not have their source of income, which would only make for worse living conditions of the miners and workers. Davis offers additional ways we can help the people of the DRC.

Additionally, several organizations’ aim to aid the people of the Congo and are determined to find ways to bring attention to this cause. Two main organizations focusing on the Congo and the “Conflict Material” problem are Enough! Project and Raise Hope for the Congo. In addition, Rachel Cernansky of Planet Green published Conflict Minerals 101: Coltan, the Congo Act, and How You Can Help, offering further information about conflict materials and ways to help the current conflict in the Congo.

While most consumers are unaware of the current “conflict materials” problem, the US government seems to be paying attention. On January 5, 2010, President Obama signed Pub.L. 111-203/HR 4173, also known as Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The act would require some electronics manufacturers to disclose where they obtained conflict materials in the DRC or an adjoining country. Companies would be required to report this to the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) and place the information on their website. Furthermore, companies may also need to hire external auditors and provide additional information to the SEC. Baker and McKenszie has published a Client Alert titled “New Reporting and Audit Obligations for High-Tech and Other Manufacturers” on August 16, which details the act, by providing an executive summary, reporting requirements, and practical considerations.

While purchasing electronics for most people within the United States can be done inexpensively, most consumers, including myself, do not think about the negative consequences our actions have. When handing our money to electronics manufacturers and distributors in order to get the newest, coolest phone, our bank account is not the only thing that takes a hit. As a society, we need to be aware of the materials, mining and manufacturing processes that occur in order to bring us the electronics we want.