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Is e-waste the new gold?

15 June 2021

Over the weekend I was talking to a friend.

He was trying to fix a piece of electronic equipment that had failed for no apparent reason. I guess that sometimes shirt just happens.

The core of the problem appears to be a tiny voltage regulator chip. These chips are found (in various forms) in virtually all modern electronics and they allow for one voltage supply to be regulated up or down to produce a greater or lower voltage on which the rest of the circuitry runs.

Nothing special, nothing to see, move along.

Except that right now we have an acute chip shortage so his attempts to find a replacement were "interesting" to say the least.

Checking the usual sites such as Element14, R&S components, DigiKey and Mouser produced no worthwhile results. All of them showed this tiny regulator chip to be out of stock with lead-times measured in tens of weeks.

Eventually, thanks to the internet, he did find a supplier who had them in stock and ready to ship but the price was more than ten times what one would expect to pay for such a device.

He ordered one anyway.

Then he also checked Ali-Express and eBay where there were a handful of suppliers willing to sell the devices for suspicously low prices.

How could these back-yard merchants have seemingly limitless stock of such a sought-after and (now) rare device while the big-name component suppliers were totally out of stock and unable to secure new supplies for months?

Ah... well the answer is almost certainly because these offerings were fakes.

Even before the big chip shortage of 2020/21, unscrupulous villains had been taking cheap components, sanding off the markings and then relabeling them with the identifiers of far more expensive devices that otherwise look identical.

This process produces a fantastic return on investment. Take a $0.10 quad flatpack chip, sand off the markings, screenprint or laser-etch new markings and you can then sell it for 20 or even 100 times what you paid. Talk about profit!

Of course previously it was pretty easy to tell when an offering was likely to be fake. An unreasonably low price was the best hint. These days however, the counterfieters can charge the full price of these chips because of the lack of supply.

Now the eBay and Ali-Express components have not yet been delivered so we won't know for a few weeks whether they are the fakes I expect them to be but I wouldn't hold my breath on that.

The other possibility is that the Sino-sourced parts are simply "recycled", having been removed from e-waste, cleaned up and then resold as new.

This later practice is not so bad, in fact it's probably a good thing for the planet.

However, all electronics have a finite life and to sell something that may have already operated for thousands of hours at high temperatures in a poorly ventilated bit of kit as a "new" component is still pretty fraudulent.

Which creates the spark of an idea in my aging head.

I wonder how much of the ewaste we're presently throwing in landfills or shipping off to some foreign land by the containerload is now worth *real* money due to the number of "unavailable" components it contains?

If I was dealing in ewaste, I'd be sorely tempted to pass all the PCBs coming through my doors through a quick screening process to see if there are any "sought-after" components that can be lifted and resold (as used) before the rest is bundled up for export or landfil. Such a venture could be quite profitable -- at least until the current chip shortage passes.

With some components now selling for 10 times what they're actually worth, that piece of scrap electronics may be worth $30-$40 in reclaimed chips -- for the sake of 5 minutes with a hot-air gun.

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