I'll spend £10m to get my Bitcoin back from tip, IT worker tells council

Computer scientist begs to use robot dogs to search landfill site to find '£149m of Bitcoin' - REX/Shutterstock
Computer scientist begs to use robot dogs to search landfill site to find '£149m of Bitcoin' - REX/Shutterstock

A computer engineer who claims he accidentally threw away £140m worth of Bitcoin will ask a local council for permission to dig up a landfill site.

James Howells, 36, is set to ask Newport City Council if he can spend £10m and use robot dogs, as well as an intricate Artificial Intelligence-powered machine, to try and locate a hard drive on which the bitcoin are stored.

Mr Howells says he acquired the 7,500 bitcoin back in 2009 for next to nothing, but threw the computer hardware away in 2013 while he was clearing out his old office.

For the past nine years, Mr Howells has put in repeated requests with Newport Council to allow him to dig up the rubbish tip, but all of those requests have been denied.

The council has previously said the "excavation is not possible under our licencing permit and excavation itself would have a huge environmental impact on the surrounding area" and they have turned down requests "on a number of occasions."

Under his latest proposal, Mr Howells has secured £10m of funding from venture-capital money in Germany and Switzerland and says he will deploy robot dogs, drones and an AI machine to filter through 110,000 tons of waste.

"It's obviously a needle in the haystack, and it's a very, very high-risk investment," Hanspeter Jaberg, the Swiss venture-capitalist, told Insider.

Mr Howells will set out two proposals to council authorities, which are based on the volume of landfill they will allow him to check through.

He has brought together a team of eight experts, all of whom are specialised in the fields of landfill excavation, waste management and data extraction, including one advisor who worked for a company that recovered lost data from the black box of the crashed Columbia space shuttle.

The vast budget includes provisions for security in the form of two robotic 'Spot' dogs who record CCTV patrols in the evening, ensuring no other opportunistic treasure hunters can gain access to the search site at night.

A mechanical arm will be used to filter through the rubbish, alongside local pickers.

"We're trying to achieve this project to a full commercial standard," the 36-year-old told Insider.

"We do not want to damage the environment in any way. If anything, we want to leave everything in a better condition."

'We cannot assist him in this matter'

Despite the fact the hardware has been in landfill for nearly a decade the former IT worker is confident it can be recovered in working order.

He told Insider he estimates there is an 80-90 per cent chance of successfully retrieving the bitcoin, provided a component called the "platter" - a disc made of either glass or metal that holds the data - is not cracked.

Mr Howells says he then plans to build "a solar or wind-energy farm on top of the landfill site once the project is complete" in an effort to assuage environmental concerns about the project.

If the money is recovered, Mr Howells says he would keep 30pc of the bitcoin and distribute the rest to his team and local causes.

A spokesperson for Newport City Council said: "Newport City Council has been contacted a number of times since 2014 about the possibility of retrieving a piece of IT hardware said to contain Bitcoins."

"The first time was several months after Mr Howells first realised the hardware was missing."

"The cost of digging up the landfill, storing and treating the waste could run into millions of pounds - without any guarantee of either finding it or it still being in working order."

"The council has also told Mr Howells on a number of occasions that excavation is not possible under our licencing permit and excavation itself would have a huge environmental impact on the surrounding area."

"Even if we were able to agree to his request, there is the question of who would meet the cost if the hard drive was not found or was damaged to such an extent that the data could not be recovered."

"We have, therefore, been clear that we cannot assist him in this matter."