Smartphones contain a number of components working in perfect unison. It’s nothing short of an engineering miracle we love to take for granted. But look a bit deeper, and you’ll find out that most smartphones contain close to 80% of the stable elements on the periodic table. The specific combination of metals may differ between devices, though. And if chemistry wasn’t your thing in school, don’t worry. We will only give you a basic rundown of things. It’s going to be fun, we promise!
Rare Earth Metals
You’ve probably heard manufacturers use rare earth metals to build smartphones. Rare earth metals are a group of 17 elements, with some of them possessing advantageous characteristics for building electronic devices. Even though their extraction and processing can impact the environment, they are essential for modern phones.
For example, smartphone speakers, vibration motors and cameras require reliable magnetic performance in a very compact size. To make it happen, manufacturers combine rare earth metal neodymium with boron and iron. These powerful magnets are known as NeFeB magnets. OLED and LCD screens need elements like europium, terbium and yttrium to recreate those vibrant colours when playing games or visiting a Canadian online casino.
To make miniature smartphone circuits more efficient, manufacturers use metals like dysprosium and terbium, which have high electrical conductivity. And then there are batteries. We all know most smartphone batteries use lithium-ion, but they also use lanthanum, cerium and neodymium. The combination of these metals makes modern batteries light, compact and dense, perfect for having in a small device like a smartphone.
Not So Rare Metals
Manufacturers love to cut costs, and aluminum allows them just that. It is abundant and relatively cheap but can leave you with a premium-feeling device in your hands. And for that reason, aluminum is loved by premium manufacturers such as Apple. When it comes to functionality, copper has been used as a conductor since we discovered electricity, and smartphones are no exception.
Gold and silver can be used instead of copper for more critical connections. Apart from being a corrosion-resistant conductor, gold and silver also put a smile on modern-day prospectors who disassemble electronics to recycle precious metals. Other metals found in smartphones are tin, used as an irreplaceable solder material, as well as nickel and cobalt.
Other Materials Used in Smartphones
You thought we would forget silicon, didn’t you? By mass, silicon is the second most abundant element in Earth’s crust, following oxygen. Thanks to its wonderful properties like abundance, heat resistance and great conductivity, silicon became a critical component of integrated circuits and microchips. The silicon oxide is also used in combination with aluminum oxide to make glass for touchscreens.
How about manmade chemicals and elements? Smartphones use a lot of plastic, and since these plastics need to be very resistant to heat and wear, manufacturers rely on a family called thermoset plastics. These are usually polycarbonate, fluoropolymer, styrene and polypropylene. They are generally cheap and available, so lower-end smartphones are built using them, while higher-end devices generally have unibody aluminum construction and even glass or ceramic bodies.
Sustainability and Environmental Concerns are Not A Cliche
Let’s run down some numbers. According to reports, more than 7 billion smartphones have been produced in the last 16 years. That’s a lot of devices. Combined with the fact that most of them are either tossed away or left sitting in a drawer, the question of sustainability becomes legitimate.
Even though the amount of rare and expensive elements used in smartphones is small, someone still had to dig up and process them for those 7 billion devices. And digging up and processing them isn’t cheap, nor does it come without certain environmental impact. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo produces the majority of the world’s cobalt.
The cobalt doesn’t only come from the mines but also from “artisans,” people without any protective gear, working in dangerous, improvised mines and open pits. Even though some manufacturers have really stepped up their sustainability game, almost 95% of smartphones’ carbon footprint is due to manufacturing, including raw material processing, extraction and shipping.