Gold in scrap? Sparks lab finds it
April 5, 2004
Like other assayers, James Mount tests samples to determine how much gold, silver and other precious metals they contain.
But Mount’s work has nothing to do with the mining industry.
His Sparks business, PME Assay Labs, is one of only a handful of independent labs in the country that tests samples of electronic scrap.
That’s right – there’s gold in them thar circuit boards! Electronics manufacturers use gold, silver, copper, platinum and palladium when they make parts for computers and other electronic equipment.
A maker of advanced micro-electronic devices, for instance, might use a tiny spot of gold to help bond each chip to an integrated circuit board.
The companies end up with a lot of scrap each year from parts that don’t pass quality control.
Recommended Stories For You
Mount says in the early days, some manufacturers used to give away their scrap.
“Then they started noticing that the scrap dealers were expanding their plants and driving nice cars,” he says.
Now electronic equipment makers are diligent about recovering the precious metals from the discarded parts.
Mount says one high-tech manufacturing executive told him that recovery of gold amounted to $12 million per year at his company.
The recovery of precious metals is just one part of the larger electronics recycling industry, which has estimated annual revenues nationwide of $700 million and yields about 900 million pounds of recyclable materials, according to the International Association of Electronics Recyclers headquartered in Albany, N.Y.
That includes parts recycled by manufacturers as well as discarded equipment recycled from the waste stream, says founder and president Peter Muscanelli.
The association doesn’t have a figure for how much of the $700 million comes from recovered precious metals.
Refineries and large recyclers have their own assay labs to test the material they buy from customers.
PME is an independent lab for customers, such as manufacturers or scrap dealers that want a second opinion to verify the content.
Or PME acts as an “umpire” when two parties come forward with different test results.
Those parties can then agree to the findings by a third, independent lab, such as PME.
While there are a few independent assay labs for the electronics industry on the East Coast, Mount believes PME is the only one in the West.
Mount got into the business on a lark.
While in college some 35 years ago, he got a job loading trucks for a San Francisco Bay area scrap metal company.When the company owner decided to deal in electronic scrap, he tapped Mount to work in the lab to test the material.
Mount was actually a business major, but he had taken a lot of chemistry in college and had developed an affinity for the subject.
In 1982, he started PME in Santa Clara.
He moved the business to Sparks in 1994 in part because of California’s regulatory environment.
Regulators there, he says, lacked an understanding of how assay labs operated.
He says he was pleased to discover that Nevada officials were familiar with the workings of assay labs and knew how to address environmental issues.
Now housed in a 2,400-square-foot building, PME employs two besides Mount.
The work requires sophisticated high-tech equipment and techniques.
The lab’s electronic balance, for instance, can measure weight to one 30-millionth of an ounce.
“You can weigh a tiny scrap of paper, then put a period on it and weigh the period,” Mount says.
On the other hand, portions of assaying haven’t changed for hundreds of years.
Mount says the Babylonians figured out that bone ash could absorb lead, an important concept for one of the steps in the process.
Samples come in small plastic bags and vary in appearance according to the material to be tested.
One bag of what looks like fine, black powder contains ground up circuit boards.
About a teaspoon of the material from each sample is tested.
After it’s combined in a container with lead oxide, flour and some other dry chemicals, it’s cooked in a 1,800-degree furnace.
Lead forms and collects all the precious metals.
After it cools, the chunk of lead is put in a small cup called a cupel.
Made from bone ash, it’s about the size of a shot glass.
When cooked in the furnace, the cupel absorbs the lead, and after cooling, a little ball of precious metals remains.
That is processed chemically and with high-tech equipment to determine the content and percentage of the various metals.
PME has grown slowly.
Mount won’t disclose annual revenue, but says business has been in good in the last year.
He says the lab strives to maintain a reputation for accuracy and speed.
It tests every sample twice and a third time if the first two samples yield results that are not within 1 percent of one another.
In most cases, PME can give customers results in five working days.
“I realize how much money our customers have at stake, and I want to make sure that when we sign our name to an assay certificate we have provided the most accurate results we can,”Mount says.
That means keeping up with a constantly changing industry.
“What I enjoy about this work is the changing array of materials that poses new challenges,” he says.
“As the manufacturers create new ways of making components, we need to devise new analytical methodologies to provide the most accurate results possible.
Ten years ago we would never have dreamed of some of the techniques we now use.”