Prospectors strike gold in old computers

It may not be the gold rush of the '80s, but entrepreneurs are ''mining'' old computers for gold, silver, and copper. The components in one large computer can contain as much as $22,000 worth of precious metals.

Back in the early 1970s when gold was only $35 to $42 an ounce, computermakers used it in abundance because it is an excellent conductor of electricity. Silver, platinum, and copper were also used in some models. But when the price of gold shot up beyond $400 an ounce, it was no longer feasible to use it when palladium could be substituted at a third of the cost.

So it is older computers that are more likely to provide precious metals, says Richard Forsythe, president of Forsythe Computer Associates. Based in Chicago, the computer leasing company also provides a dismantling service that purges computers of their precious metals.

The firm is not delicate about its work. ''We break the computers apart with sledge hammers, saws, a boot, anything we can hit them with,'' says Forsythe.

Most of the metals, he notes, are extracted from the ''guts'' of the computer: contact points, chips, and electronic circuitry. The precious metal scrap is then burned to rid it of such impurities as plastic. The end result is a bar of precious metal, a composite of various metals that are later separated and then sold or reused. The whole process takes about 60 days; the company dismantles about 200 computers a month.

Mr. Forsythe became involved with the refinement process last May when he was contacted by an old school friend, Les Pinsof, executive vice-president of Sipi Metal Corporation, a large metal refinery in Chicago. He told Forsythe that companies such as IBM, Honeywell, and Burroughs were reclaiming precious metals from outdated computers.

Mr. Pinsof suggested that the Forsythe company do the same with the computers it no longer leased. A joint venture was formed, and Forsythe Computer Associates became an arm of Sipi to extract the precious metals.

Most of the dismantled computers are eight or nine years old. They are obsolete and ''actually a negative value because they're not worth anything, yet you still have to pay storage to keep them in the warehouse,'' Forsythe says. Depending on the size of the computer, storage can cost as much as $100 a month.

The cost of the refinement process is determined by the weight of the computer. Forsythe's company charges $1.50 a pound. The company also receives a commission of 15 percent of the value of the metals extracted.

According to Forsythe, there are fewer than five companies that reclaim precious metals from computers, and his is the only one that doesn't subcontract the smelting or refining processes. Forsythe speculates that his company does about 80 percent of all independent computer dismantling associated with reclaiming metals. He has taken apart computers from such firms as Decimus Corporation, the computer-leasing arm of Bank of America; andFord Motor Credit Corporation.

A word of caution to computer owners: Before taking a sledgehammer to your equipment, find out whether it contains any precious metals; there is no guarantee that money invested in the reclaiming process will pay off.

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