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French 'alchemists' to cash in on turning water into gold

Published time: October 28, 2012 18:17
Edited time: October 29, 2012 02:53
A Magpie Polymers employee does research experiments of recovering traces of precious metals (gold, platinum) contained in industrial process water, mainly from the electronical recycling industry.  (AFP Photo / Mark Preel)

A Magpie Polymers employee does research experiments of recovering traces of precious metals (gold, platinum) contained in industrial process water, mainly from the electronical recycling industry. (AFP Photo / Mark Preel)

A small company near Paris has pioneered technology which can "turn water into gold." Other precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium can also be extracted using the same methods.

Magpie Polymers, based 80 kilometers southeast of Paris, has developed the technology from a procedure perfected by the prestigious Swiss Ecole Polytechnique in 2007.

The process uses tiny pellets of plastic resin though which waste water is pumped. Gold, platinum and other precious metals gradually stick to the pellets and are in this way separated from the waste water.

A single liter of this patented resin can treat five to ten cubic meters of waste water and recover 50 to 100 grams of precious metal, which according to Magpie is equivalent to 3,000 to 5,000 euro in value.

Dutchman Steve van Zutphen, who co-founded Magpie Polymers last year with Frenchman Etienne Almoric, explained to Agence France-Presse, “We leave only a microgram per liter; it’s the equivalent of a sugar lump in an Olympic swimming pool.”

Precious metals are contained in small amounts in many everyday products, such as mobile phones and catalytic converters.  But once these objects are scrapped, the problem lies in retrieving the particles of precious metals.

Once they have been separated and crushed, some industrial waste products have to be dissolved with acid in water. Then the metals in the water have to be recovered, regardless of their value.

“What is complicated is the amounts are infinitesimal, so hard to recover,” Van Zupten explained.

“There are many technologies to get metal from water that have existed since the nineteenth century. But there comes a moment when existing technologies are no longer effective, or become too expensive,” he continued.

The entrepreneurs are already looking to the “refining” market – specialists in the recovery of precious metals, like the Anglo-French company Cookson-clal.

But they are also hoping their technology may be of interest to mining firms or large water treatment companies such as the French Suez Environment.

As demand for precious metals increases, combined with increasing shortages – platinum mines are becoming exhausted and half the platinum used worldwide is already recycled – prices have soared. Their timing could not be better.  

Magpie’s innovative technology can also be used to leach out harmful but more common metals such as lead, cobalt or copper. But as of yet, nobody wants to pay for metals like these.

However, tougher environmental standards, which would further tighten the rules for the recovery of waste metal, could further add strength to Magpie’s business.

The ambitious new company has just taken on six staff, and hopes for a turnover of nearly a million euro next year and 15 million more in four years’ time.