Turning Cheese Waste into Gold: A Sustainable Solution for E-Waste Recovery


In a groundbreaking study, researchers from ETH Zurich in Switzerland have developed an innovative and eco-friendly method to extract high-purity gold from discarded electronics. The key ingredient in this process? Whey, a byproduct of cheesemaking. This surprising discovery not only offers a sustainable solution for recovering valuable metals from e-waste but also demonstrates the potential for repurposing food industry waste in unexpected ways.

Gold has long been prized for its beauty and rarity, but in recent years, it has also become increasingly important in various technical applications, from electronics and aerospace to medicine and nanotechnology. However, as a non-renewable resource, the supply of gold is limited, and its value continues to rise. This has led researchers to explore new methods for recovering gold from e-waste, which is a growing problem worldwide.

The ETH Zurich team, led by corresponding author Raffaele Mezzenga, has found a way to turn whey protein into a highly effective gold-filtering substance. By denaturing the proteins under acidic conditions and high temperatures, they created a gel of protein amyloid fibrils, which was then dried and formed into a sponge. When placed in a solution of ionized metals extracted from old computer motherboards, the sponge selectively absorbed gold ions, along with smaller amounts of copper and iron.

After the absorption process, the protein fibril sponge was heated, causing the gold ions to reduce to flakes and eventually melt down into a nugget. Analysis of the nugget revealed a purity of 90.8% gold, corresponding to 21 or 22 karats, with the remaining mass consisting of copper and nickel.

One of the most impressive aspects of this new method is its cost-effectiveness. The researchers demonstrated that the total cost of recovering 1 gram of gold from e-waste, including material procurement and energy costs, was 50 times lower than the value of the gold recovered. This remarkable return on investment makes the process commercially viable and attractive for potential industrial applications.

In addition to its economic benefits, the whey-based gold recovery method also has a lower environmental impact compared to conventional techniques using activated carbon. The protein fibril sponge's carbon footprint is approximately 25% lower than that of activated carbon, primarily due to its lower energy consumption during production and higher adsorption capacity.

While the current study used whey, an animal-based protein, the researchers acknowledge that plant-based proteins, such as those derived from peas and potatoes, could potentially be used as a more environmentally friendly alternative. They plan to explore this possibility in future research.

As the team prepares to bring this technology to market, they are also considering other sources of gold beyond e-waste, such as industrial waste from microchip manufacturing or gold-plating processes. The versatility and scalability of this method could revolutionize the way we recover precious metals from various waste streams, contributing to a more sustainable and circular economy.

The innovative use of a food industry byproduct to recover gold from e-waste is a testament to the power of interdisciplinary research and creative problem-solving. As Mezzenga enthusiastically stated, "You can't get more sustainable than that!" This groundbreaking study, published in the journal Advanced Materials, offers a glimpse into a future where waste is not just managed but transformed into valuable resources, benefiting both the economy and the environment.