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El Dorado 2.0 : EPFL Valais/Wallis unlocks the gold in your pocket


9 June 2022

The EPFL Valais/Wallis’ “El Dorado 2.0 – unlock the gold in your pocket” project has won the 2022 Agora Optimus prize, highlighting the importance of recycling electronic waste to recover gold.

Almost everyone carries a little gold on them. But not necessarily in the form of jewlery: gold is also hidden away in our mobile phones.

According to Wendy Queen, a chemist and head of the Laboratory of Functional Inorganic Materials at EPFL Valais/Wallis, we should all be aware of this “treasure” and the importance of recycling electronic devices. Recycling makes it possible to recover the precious metals contained in devices.

For this reason, Queen and her colleague Mirko Bischofberger submitted their project titled “El Dorado 2.0 – unlock the gold in your pocket” to the Agora funding scheme. This year, the project won the Agora Optimus prize.

Raising public awareness on the subject of recycling precious metals

It takes nearly a tonne of ore to obtain enough gold to manufacture 40 mobile phones. If electronic devices are not recycled at the end of their life – which is the case for 80% of them – the gold they contain is lost. The gold per device is very small, but added up, it amounts to more than EUR 10 billion each year.

While working on recovering mercury, Wendy Queen had the idea of optimizing the laboratory’s sponges to be tested on gold, whose properties are similar to mercury, which proved successful. Although the technique is still being refined, one gram of sponge can recover one gram of gold.

The EPFL Valais/Wallis’ team wants to create a fun way of demonstrating in real time how gold can be recovered from a mobile phone.

These demonstrations will take place in venues open to the public, such as the EPFL or science museums. The team is also thinking about presenting the Eldorado 2.0 project in the Glattzentrum in Zurich, one of the most popular shopping malls in Switzerland. This way, many people, especially families with children, i.e. the future consumers of electronic products, will become aware of the importance of recycling precious metals.