Why It Takes 75 Elements To Make Your Cell Phone

Ahh, I broke my phone screen. Hey does anyone have any yttrium, terbium,
europium, or gadolinium? ….or tape? Hey all you screen time junkies, Trace here
for DNews. For futurists, technology is the great unifier,
and the internet democratizes communication for all of humanity! The statistics organization IDC estimates
44 percent of the planet is on the internet in 2016, and according to Pew Research, gloabally
54 percent own smartphones. But creating devices to access this future-world
of technology, involves pulling lots of minerals from the actual-world we have to live in now! It’s probably no surprise to learn that
the modern smartphone is an absurdly complex little rectangle. Inside an iPhone, for example, you can find
about 75 of the 118 elements on the periodic table. That’s most of the elements. For comparison, life needs only about 30 elements
elements to…well, be alive. Admittedly, many of the iPhone’s elements
are common enough: silicon is used to make transistors, those tiny on-off switches that
form the basis of microchips. Aluminum, silicon, potassium, and oxygen all
go into the reinforced glass that covers every screen. Lithium powers an iPhone’s battery, as it
does in a gazillion other devices. And there’s some Carbon in there because,
well, there’s carbon in almost everything. None of that is particularly controversial…the
tricker smartphone elements are the ones that are either rare, or hard to harvest, or both. Gold and tin, for example, are used in electronics
wiring…gold is an excellent conductor, and tin is critical part of the soldering process. Both are relatively rare elements, which can
mean that companies end up doing business with mining outfits in countries with poor
environmental and human rights records. This is why minerals like gold, tin, and tantalum
are considered “conflict minerals.” Apple, to its credit, is working hard to source
its minerals from less exploitative places. And then there are the so-called “rare-earth
metals”… a group of elements that are not actually all that rare…they’re just
spread around the word in small pockets, and are notoriously difficult to mine. They also happen to be crucial to most electronics…these
are elements like yttrium, terbium, europium, or gadolinium. In iPhones, they help screens display colors,
vibrating units vibrate, and speakers…speak. Once again, supply is an issue here: today
more than 90% of rare earth metals are mined in China…and the impact of those operations
is not great. China’s lax environmental laws have caused
millions of residents living near mines to be threatened by radioactive waste and other
by-products of mineral production. So why on Earth do companies continue to use
these super problematic elements? Why not find an alternative? Well, they might not have much of a choice. A study at Yale University looked at all 62
metals used in the electronics industry…and found that many simply had no functional substitutes. Meaning we’re probably stuck with them. And also meaning that companies can work hard
to source materials as responsibly as possible, but at the end of the day, those elements
that make up an iPhone are going to come from all over the world. The final wrinkle here, of course, is that
all of these metals and minerals are nonrenewable resources…and when they’re gone, that
electronics industry is going to look very different. So if there’s all these rare minerals in
your phone…why does the battery still suck? We explain why, here. Are there any other electronics or items you
want to know about? Let us know in the comments, please subscribe
so you get more DNews, and come back every day.

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