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Selective recovery of precious metals through photocatalysis


Precious metals such as gold and platinum are valued materials for a variety of important applications, but their scarcity poses a risk of supply disruption. Recycling precious metals from waste provides a promising solution; however, conventional metallurgical methods bear high environmental costs and energy consumption. Here, we report a photocatalytic process that enables one to selectively retrieve seven precious metals—silver (Ag), gold (Au), palladium (Pd), platinum (Pt), rhodium (Rh), ruthenium (Ru) and iridium (Ir)—from waste circuit boards, ternary automotive catalysts and ores. The whole process does not involve strong acids or bases or toxic cyanide, but needs only light and photocatalysts such as titanium dioxide (TiO2). More than 99% of the targeted elements in the waste sources can be dissolved and the precious metals recovered after a simple reducing reaction that shows a high purity (≥98%). By demonstrating success at the kilogram scale and showing that the catalysts can be reused more than 100 times, we suggest that this approach might be industry compatible. This research opens up a new path in the development of sustainable technologies for recycling the Earth’s resources and contributing to a circular economy.

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Fig. 1: Photocatalytic dissolution of PMs.
Fig. 2: Photocatalytic selective dissolution of metals from metal catalysts (1% Cu/TiO2, 1% Ag/TiO2, 1% Au/TiO2 and 1% Pt/TiO2), CPU boards and e-waste powder.
Fig. 3: Reduction process of PM ions.
Fig. 4: Proposed mechanism of PM recovery.

Data availability

The data supporting the findings of the study are available within the paper and its Supplementary Information.


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This work was supported by the National Key Research and Development Program of China (no. 2020YFA0211004), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (nos. 21876114 and 21761142011), Shanghai Government (nos. 19DZ1205102, 19160712900 and 18JC1412900), the Chinese Education Ministry Key Laboratory and International Joint Laboratory on Resource Chemistry, the Shanghai Eastern Scholar Program and the Shanghai Engineering Research Center of Green Energy Chemical Engineering (no. 18DZ2254200).

Author information




Y.C., M.X., Z.B. and H.L. conceived the idea for the paper. Y.C. and Z.B. designed the experiments. Y.C., J.W. and Y.W. synthesized the material. Q.Z., Y.D., X.C. and Z.L.W. performed the high-angle annular dark-field STEM imaging. Y.C. performed the sample characterization. Z.B., Z.L.W. and H.L. conducted the experiments. Y.C. and Z.B. analysed the data and wrote the manuscript. All of the authors contributed to writing the paper.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Zhong Lin Wang or Hexing Li or Zhenfeng Bian.

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Competing interests

The authors have filed a patent application (US Patent application no. 17042775) on technology related to the processes described in this Article.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Sustainability thanks Sheng Dai, Bernd Friedrich and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–28 and Tables 1–4.

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Chen, Y., Xu, M., Wen, J. et al. Selective recovery of precious metals through photocatalysis. Nat Sustain (2021).

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