The quest to find $181 million in bitcoin buried in a dump
James Howells’ life changed when he threw out a hard drive about the size of an iPhone 6.
Howells, from the city of Newport in southern Wales, had two identical laptop hard drives squirreled away in a drawer in 2013. One was blank; he says the other contained 8,000 bitcoins — now worth about $181 million, even after the recent crypto crash.
He’d meant to throw out the blank one, but instead the drive containing the cryptocurrency ended up going to the local dump in a garbage bag.
Nine years later, he’s determined to get back his stash, which he mined in 2009.
Howells, 36, is hoping local authorities will let him stage a high-tech treasure hunt for the buried bitcoins. His problem is that he can’t get into the dump.
For almost a decade, Newport’s city council has denied his requests to dig for his hard drive, saying it would be expensive and environmentally damaging, but Howells is not deterred.
He gave Insider a first look at his new $11 million proposal — backed by venture-capital funding — to search up to 110,000 tons of garbage. He hopes presenting it to the council in the coming weeks will persuade it to let him finally try to recover the hard drive.
Finding a hard drive in 110,000 tons of garbage
Looking for a hard drive among thousands of tons of garbage might seem like a Herculean task.
But Howells, a former IT worker, says he believes it’s achievable through a combination of human sorters, robot dogs, and an artificial-intelligence-powered machine trained to look for hard drives on a conveyor belt.
His plan has two versions, based on how much of the landfill the council would allow him to search.https://247281a77e53e850f57e0cd3715ec2e1.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0
By his estimates, the most extensive option would take three years and involve scouring 100,000 metric tons — or about 110,000 tons — of garbage at a cost of $11 million. A scaled-down version would cost $6 million and take 18 months.
He has assembled a team of eight experts specializing in areas including AI-powered sorting, landfill excavation, waste management, and data extraction — including one advisor who worked for a company that recovered data from the black box of the crashed Columbia space shuttle.
The experts and their companies would be contracted to execute the excavation and would receive a bonus should the bitcoin hoard be successfully retrieved.
“We’re trying to achieve this project to a full commercial standard,” Howells said.
Howells said machines would dig up the garbage, which would then be sorted at a pop-up facility near the landfill.
Human pickers would sift through it, along with a machine from a company in Oregon called Max-AI. The machine would look like a scanner set over a conveyor belt.
Remi Le Grand of Max-AI told Insider the company would train AI algorithms to spot hard drives that look similar to Howells’. A mechanical arm would then pick out any objects that could be contenders.
Howells has built security costs into his plan, fearing people may try to dig up the hard drive themselves.
He’s budgeted for 24-hour CCTV cameras as well as two robotic “Spot” dogs from Boston Dynamics that would function as mobile CCTV patrols at night and sweep the area for anything that looks like his hard drive by day.
Howells told Insider his team had its first meeting in May at the Celtic Manor Resort outside Newport for what he called a dress rehearsal of his pitch to the council.
Richard HammondIt’s a story that goes from the incredibly mundane to the colossal
The meeting was filmed and attended by the former “Top Gear” host Richard Hammond, who has released a short YouTube documentary about Howells.
“They’re clearly a bunch of very committed people who have faith in him and the plan,” Hammond told Insider of Howells’s team.
“It’s a story that goes from the incredibly mundane to the colossal,” Hammond said. “If I were in his position, I don’t think I’d have the strength to answer the door.”
After excavation, the garbage would be cleaned and as much as possible would be recycled, Howells said. The rest would be reburied.
“We do not want to damage the environment in any way,” he said. “If anything, we want to leave everything in a better condition.”
His plans also include building either a solar or wind-energy farm on top of the landfill site once the project is completed. Yet the chance of the council agreeing to his vision anytime soon looks slim.
“There is nothing that Mr. Howells could present to us” that would make the council agree, a council representative told Insider. “His proposals pose significant ecological risk, which we cannot accept and indeed are prevented from considering by the terms of our permit.”
Will the hard drive even work if it’s found?
Whether the hard drive will work depends on a component called the “platter” — a disc made of either glass or metal that holds the data. Howells says that so long as the platter isn’t cracked, there’s an 80% to 90% chance the data will be retrievable.
Phil Bridge, a data-recovery professional who has advised Howells on the project, told Insider these figures were accurate.
But if the platter is damaged, Bridge says, there is only a small chance the data could be retrieved.
Bridge says he got involved with the project because he found it intriguing. “It’s just one of those cases that piques anyone’s interest,” he said. “It would be just a fantastic success story to help him get it back and prove everyone wrong really.”
Where would the funding come from?
Hanspeter Jaberg and Karl Wendeborn, two venture capitalists who are based, respectively, in Switzerland and Germany, told Insider they had promised to provide $11 million to fund the project if Howells won council approval.
“It’s obviously a needle in the haystack, and it’s a very, very high-risk investment,” Jaberg said.
Howells said he didn’t have a contract with the prospective backers but had discussed the plan in Zoom meetings. “Until I’ve got something in writing from Newport City Council,” he said, “there is nothing to sign up to.”
What if he does find the bitcoin stash?
Howells said if he managed to retrieve the data, he would keep roughly 30% of what’s on there — worth just over $54 million at current value.
He said about a third would go to the recovery team, 30% to the investors, and the rest for local causes including giving £50, or about $61 at current value, in bitcoin to each of Newport’s 150,000 residents.
The amount has fallen from the $240 each he told CNN in January 2021; Howells said he decided to put more money into securing “professional companies” for the excavation to help convince the council.
What if the council doesn’t agree to his plans?
If Howells fails to get the council’s backing, he says, his last resort will be taking the local authority to court with the claim that its actions constitute an “illegal embargo” on the hard drive. “I’ve been reluctant to go down that route in the past because I’ve not wanted to cause problems,” he said. “I wanted to work with Newport City Council.”
Howells said he’d never been granted a face-to-face meeting with the council. He said he was given a 20-minute Zoom meeting in May 2021 but hoped his new business plan would help him break through.
He said he met with his local member of Parliament, Jessica Morden, on June 24. Morden’s office confirmed the meeting took place.
Once he’s made the council aware of his new plan, all he can do is wait. “This is the best situation I’ve been in so far,” he said. “This is the most professional operation we’ve put together, and we’ve got all the best people involved.”
The “crypto proponent” says he makes his living by buying bitcoin every month and selling it when he needs cash.
Howells says he tries not to think too much about what his share of the money would allow him to do, if the hard drive is ever found in working order. “Otherwise,” he said, “you just drive yourself crazy.”