Bitcoin worth $186m lost in landfill: how a software engineer plans to find his loot

James Howells wants to use artificial intelligence and robots but the local council is standing in the way

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James Howells at the Newport Amenity Centre and landfill site
Man throws away computer hard drive with £4m worth of bitcoins stored on it, Wales, Britain - 28 Nov 2013
A computer expert threw away an old hard drive containing 7,500 bitcoins worth an estimated £4m. James Howells obtained the bitcoins, which are a virtual form of currency, for almost nothing in 2009. A few years ago the IT worker removed his computer's hard drive after spilling a drink on it. The part then sat in a drawer of his house for years and he forgot that he had the bitcoins on it. So during a recent clearout of his old IT equipment he thought nothing about throwing the drive out. It was only later that he realised what had been left on there. He checked all of his back up files but could not locate the coins so went to his local landfill site. However, one glance at the size of the site and he knew it would be fruitless to search for the drive. Bitcoins have soared in value recently and a single one is now worth around $1,000 (£613).
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A software engineer from Wales who lost about $186.9 million in Bitcoin at a landfill site in 2013 has hatched a plan to recover it.

For the past nine years, James Howells has been attempting to locate the hard drive on which the Bitcoin was stored.

In 2009, Mr Howells was understood to be one of the first five people in the world to be running Bitcoin mining software and had 8,000 coins at a time when it was worth virtually nothing.

He then stopped mining and, in 2010, stripped his laptop for parts and put the hard drive in a drawer.

“Every so often, I used to go through and do a clear out,” he said during a recent interview with YouTube channel What Next. "I had two hard drives just loose in the drawer and it turns out I threw the wrong one away."

By 2013, his Bitcoin was worth $1.4m. On Wednesday, Bitcoin was trading at $23,362.86 as of 1.50pm UAE time, making his Bitcoin worth a total of $186.9m.

Cryptocurrencies are struggling to recover from a rout this year that wiped more than 50 per cent off the MVIS CryptoCompare Digital Assets 100 index.

The “crypto winter” crash came on the back of 40-year high inflation in the US, rising interest rates in many parts of the world, and recession fears, with Bitcoin in June falling below $20,000 — a long way from its November high of $67,734.

Mr Howells wants to excavate the waste at the landfill site, have it fed on to a conveyor belt and then pass it through an AI scanning system and robot arm.

The waste would then go into a sorting machine designed to filter objects based on size. He has environmental and data experts on board and said a hedge fund has offered to fund the excavation.

There are hopes that the unique shape, measurement and colour of the hard drive would aid the search, although there are concerns that it may have been compacted or shattered, so even if it was found there is no guarantee that the data would be recoverable.

“I've always wanted to use AI technology to find the hard drive,” he said. “It's the easiest and quickest way.”

If he could access the landfill's records, Mr Howells said he could identify the week in which he threw the hard drive away, which would lead to the serial number of the bin that it was in and the grid reference where it is located.

He said he could not walk away and accept that it was gone, “because I could spend the rest of my life working a day job and never come close to the value that's on that hard drive”.

However, Mr Howells has run into regulatory problems and has yet to receive permission from Newport City Council to search the landfill, despite previously offering 25 per cent of the fortune if it can help him find it.

His proposal “poses significant ecological risk, which we cannot accept and, indeed, are prevented from considering by the terms of our permit”, a Newport City Council representative told The Guardian.

Meanwhile, Mr Howells said he had a 20-minute Zoom call with the council and did not hear from them again.

If he is successful in recovering the digital coins, he has made a pledge to the people of Newport to “literally give them crypto directly and bring this whole area into the 21st century”.

He has vowed to give every single person in Newport £50 ($60.85) in Bitcoin.

“We have all of the components of this recovery operation in place,” he said. “In terms of what's next — and fast cars — I try not to think that far ahead.”

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Updated: August 03, 2022, 11:12 AM
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