The Enhanced Role of Protein Amyloid Fibrils in Gold Recovery

gold foil on leaves branch


by | Feb 20, 2024

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In an era where technological innovation and sustainability converge, the quest for efficient and environmentally friendly methods of gold recovery has taken a fascinating turn. The evolution of society has long been intertwined with the lustrous allure of gold, a metal prized not only for its aesthetic appeal but also for its critical applications across various technological domains.

Today, the imperative to reclaim the metal from waste sources has become a cornerstone of the circular economy, especially in light of a burgeoning e-waste problem. A study led by ETH Zurich unveils the potential of protein amyloid fibrils (AF) as a sustainable process for gold recovery, marking a possible advancement of eco-friendly resource recycling.

Amyloid Fibrils in Gold Recovery

At the heart of this innovative approach is the valorization of whey, a by-product of the dairy industry, into AF aerogels, poised for the selective recovery of gold from electronic waste. This strategy not only addresses the escalating issue of e-waste but also champions the principles of the circular economy by repurposing food industry by-products.

The process begins with the synthesis of AF through the denaturation and self-assembly of whey protein, leading to the formation of nanofibrils renowned for their remarkable nanomechanical strength, stability, and unique surface characteristics. These attributes render AF aerogels as an exemplary material for metal adsorption, particularly for gold, due to their high surface-to-volume ratio and adaptable surface functionality.

Unveiling the Efficacy of AF Aerogels

The prowess of AF aerogels in metal adsorption is remarkable, showcasing an exceptional preference for gold ions over other metals. This selectivity is attributed to the supramolecular chemical chelation mechanism, wherein multiple coordination bonds form between the metal ions and the protein molecules on the AF surface.

The study reveals an impressive gold removal efficiency of 93.3% and an adsorption capacity which significantly outperforms traditional adsorbents in both efficiency and sustainability. Furthermore, the AF aerogels facilitate the conversion of adsorbed gold ions into nanoparticles and elemental flakes, underscoring their versatility in gold recovery and nanostructure synthesis.

Transforming E-Waste Recovery

The application of AF aerogels extends beyond mere metal adsorption, venturing into the practical recovery of gold from dissolved computer motherboards. Despite the complex mixture of metals present in such solutions, AF aerogels demonstrate unparalleled selectivity towards gold, efficiently isolating it from other elements.

This process culminates in the production of a gold nugget of high purity, illustrating the potential of AF aerogels to revolutionize the e-waste recycling industry. Moreover, an economic assessment of this method points to its cost-effectiveness and scalability, presenting a compelling alternative to conventional gold recovery techniques.

The environmental merits of utilizing AF aerogels for gold recovery have been thoroughly evaluated, highlighting their reduced carbon footprint and lesser impact on freshwater eutrophication and fossil depletion compared to activated carbon. Although the study notes a higher ecosystem impact from the use of protein-based aerogels, it suggests that transitioning to plant-based proteins could alleviate this concern, further bolstering the environmental sustainability of the process.

The exploration of protein amyloid fibrils as an innovative adsorbent for gold recovery from e-waste not only shows new technological viability but also underscores a commitment to environmental stewardship. By integrating the principles of the circular economy and leveraging the unique properties of AF aerogels, this approach offers a promising pathway to mitigate the environmental impact of e-waste, enhance resource efficiency, and pave the way for sustainable technological advancements.

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