How your phone’s SIM card could make medicine cheaper

Electronic gadgets are a potpourri of expensive and rare items, but the majority of them end up pile up in an e-waste landfill instead of being recycled. It’s not because we miss the technology to recycle itbut due to factors such as cost management and process efficiency. SIM cards are among the parts of the phone that end up being wasted of little interest in terms of recycling efforts.

Now the folks at Imperial College London have come up with a method for recycling SIM cards that can potentially help make drugs cheaper. In a world where accessibility to health care is in crisis mode – especially in the United States, where people pay the full price globally at $1,300 per year on drugs – this encouraging SIM recycling method for the pharmaceutical industry could be a boon.

It’s all about this gold

At the heart of this promising solution is gold – a compound of gold, to put it precisely. SIM cards use a gold coating because it is an excellent conductor of electricity. Additionally, it is much more resistant to corrosive damage over time than other precious metals, such as silver. However, the amount used is quite small, and thousands of SIM cards would have to be collected to extract a few grams of gold.

It is not a very economical process, both on an individual level and on an industrial scale. The biggest problem is the extraction methods, which are complex and expensive. In response, Professors Angela Serpe and Paola Deplano from the University of Cagliari in Italy have developed a simple method for recovering gold and other precious metals from electronics.

So how does this play into the drug manufacturing business? Well, gold is also an excellent catalyst, which means it can speed up the process of chemical reactions. The process mentioned above relies on crushing, stripping plastic, and chemically treating e-waste to recover the gold in a compound form, which isn’t really as valuable as the blingy metal itself.

Extract gold compound from electronic waste.
imperial college london

In fact, the gold compound produced at the end of the process will not readily yield pure gold for reuse in electronic circuit boards. It’s here that some minds from Imperial College London have found a solution. Led by Professors James Wilton-Ely and Chris Braddock, they found a way to use this recycled gold compound as a catalyst for pharmaceutical applications.

How it all works

The team applied the gold compound as a catalyst in multiple chemical reactions to make drugs such as painkillers and anti-inflammatories. To their surprise, the gold “Waste: Within Their Reach” performed as well as, if not better than, the catalysts currently in use.

Another major discovery was that this gold compound derived from used SIM cards could also be reused, further adding to its cost-effectiveness appeal. A research paperwhich is now available in ACS Publications, states: “This is the first direct application in homogeneous catalysis of gold recovery products from e-waste.

Recovery of precious metals from discarded electronic devices.
imperial college london

This low-impact recovery process to obtain gold as a catalyst from discarded SIM cards and other waste electrical and electronic equipment is not only more economical, but also much more environmentally sustainable than commercial mining.

SIMs remaining = cheaper drugs

The paper adds that “even small-scale, unoptimized production” of the gold catalyst, which is obtained as a black crystalline solid, is significantly cheaper than traditional options currently used in the pharmaceutical industry. Of course, it’s also far less damaging to the environment than gold mining operations.

Even after gold compounds are used as catalysts during a drug synthesis batch and recovered using a simple chemical process, they are free from any organic impurities. To put it simply, they can be used to catalyze drug production processes up to eight times without any loss of efficiency.

A SIM card out of its plastic tray.
Tomek from Pixabay

The team concludes that conventional gold catalysts can be replaced with “more sustainable and cheaper alternatives recovered from the millions of metric tons of e-waste currently sent to landfill each year.” With mass adoption, the benefits from this breakthrough could very well be passed on to the pharmaceutical industry to make drugs more affordable.

At a time when even the White House had to step in with a Executive Decree to bring down the price of prescription drugs, the world could certainly use innovations like this. Another remarkable project to recycle SIM cards came from the Kids Non-Profit Organization (KNPO), which used recycled SIM cards to make safety reflectors. The aim was to use them to prevent road accidents.

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