The closest thing we have to modern-day alchemy may be the work of Kosaka Smelting and Refining, the Japanese firm that harvests gold and other valuable metals from old electronics. From used mobile telephones, Kosaka, a unit of the metals-and-mining company Dowa Holdings, can extract gold, copper, silver, antimony, and other minerals, including the rare earths necessary for myriad high-tech devices. One cell phone can yield up to 20 milligrams of gold; that may seem minuscule, but consider this: A ton of phones can provide 20 times more gold than a ton of gold ore.
The company's recycling process is based on methods long used by Dowa to get metals from raw ore. Disused, dismantled electronics are heated to 1,300 degrees Celsius, at which point 19 different metals (so far) can be extracted. It's working on ways to harvest more. One target: neodymium, a rare-earth essential for magnets used in everything from microphones to wind turbines.
Kosaka's eco-friendly innovation is well timed politically and economically. China, which mines about 93% of the world's rare-earth minerals, has slashed exports of them by 82% over the past year. For a period in late 2010, it cut off Japan's access to its rare earths entirely. "We are promoting the formation of a recycling-oriented society," Kosaka's website says—a modern take on the ancient Platonic observation that necessity is the mother of invention.