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Waste not want not: life cycle implications of gold recovery and recycling from nanowaste
Commercial-scale applications of nanotechnology are rapidly increasing. Enhanced production of nanomaterials and nano-enabled products and their resultant disposal lead to concomitant increases in the volume of nanomaterial wastes (i.e., nanowaste). Many nanotechnologies employ resource-limited materials, such as precious metals and rare earth elements that ultimately end up as nanowaste. To make nanotechnology more sustainable it is essential to develop strategies to recover these high-value, resource-limited materials. To address this complex issue, we developed laboratory-scale methods to recover nanowaste gold. To this end, α-cyclodextrin facilitated host–guest inclusion complex formation involving second-sphere coordination of [AuBr4]− and [K(OH2)6]+ was used for gold recovery and the recovered gold was then used to produce new nanoparticles. To quantify the environmental impacts of this gold recycling process we then produced life cycle assessments to compare nanoparticulate gold production scenarios with and without recycling. The LCA results indicate that recovery and recycling of nanowaste gold can significantly reduce the environmental impacts of gold nanoparticle synthesis.