Built into every smartphone on Earth is a stunning collection of around 70 precious and rare metals. How did these valuable elements get into our devices – and can we reclaim them?
What exactly is in a smartphone?
Each contains roughly 25g of aluminium and 15g of copper. But these are just two of roughly 70 chemical elements that make up the average smartphone. These can be divided into different groups. The two most important are rare earth elements and precious metals.
The average smartphone has around 0.034g of gold and 0.34g of silver, as well as traces of platinum. These may sound like tiny amounts, but the concentration of metal in a phone is far higher than its equivalent in ore. In fact, one tonne of smartphones contains 300 times as much pure gold as the same weight in gold ore.
What about the rare earth elements?
Rare earths are a selection of elements found in the Earth’s crust. They are found around the world in low concentrations and have an enormous range of magnetic, phosphorescent and conductive properties – making them crucial to modern technologies.
Of the 17 rare earths that exist, the average phone will contain up to 16. In smartphones, they produce the bright colours of the display, as well as being responsible for connectivity. Plus, they create the vibrations that alert you to an incoming message or call.
What’s the problem?
While rare earths are fairly common, they are rarely found in high concentrations. This means they have to be extracted in open-pit mines – destroying huge areas of natural habitats. Mining in this way also causes air and water pollution and threatens local wildlife.
It’s not only wildlife that is in danger. The pollution also affects the people living nearby. In a recent book, author Guillaume Pitron described how the people in one mining village in China suffer from high blood pressure, strokes and even cancer as a result of the air pollution.
Is it only a safety problem?
No. There are more than 2.5 billion people on the planet with a smartphone. On average, each of them upgrades their phones every 11 months. In the EU alone, 10 million phones are discarded every month. Old phones are placed in drawers or thrown away. And when they are, only 10% are recycled.
In 2019, a group of researchers released a list of “endangered” elements, warning people not to replace their phones so often. If we continue at our current pace, they said, many of the elements could be virtually impossible to find in 100 years.
Is it worth taking old phones apart?
Yes, on a large scale. One million mobile phones contain around 350kg of silver, 34kg of gold and 15kg of palladium. Collecting them and taking them apart is worth it, but it is a difficult and dangerous job. Most e-waste ends up in China, where poorly paid workers and children break open old phones. One town, Guiyu, processes more e-waste than any other – and 80% of it comes from overseas.
Workers have to use dangerous chemicals to break open phones and separate the precious ores. In Guiyu, residents breathe air poisoned with mercury and arsenic. They drink polluted water and eat food grown in polluted soil.
Is there a better way?
Yes! The most obvious solution is to stop replacing phones so often. In Paris, so-called “repair cafes” are growing in popularity. Experts volunteer to spend an afternoon fixing people’s electrical items for free. The plan is to reduce e-waste in the busy city.
However, some say it is unrealistic to expect everyone to change their habits. One person has come up with an inventive solution. Materials scientist Veena Sahajwalla plans to create “micro-factories” that use robotics to extract valuable ores from old circuit boards.
- Could you live for a week without a smartphone?
- Put together an advert to be shared on social media that encourages people to mend their old electrical items rather than replace them.
- Precious metals
- Rare, naturally occurring metallic chemical elements of high economic value, like gold, silver and platinum.
- A naturally occurring solid material from which a valuable metal or mineral is extracted.
- Phosphorescence is the process in which energy is absorbed by a substance and released slowly in the form of light, rather than heat.
- They are also used for TV and computer monitors as well as low carbon energy technologies such as wind turbines.
- Open-pit mines
- Also known as open-cast mining, this is the process where minerals are cut from a large open pit in the ground. The conventional pit covers around 3.5 square kilometres.
- The Rare Metals War was published in 2020 and discusses the race for resources across the world.
- Repair cafes
- There are now 12 cafes that take place once a month. People can turn up with old phones, computers, kettles and TVs and get them fixed for free.
- Sahajwalla’s design is so small that the whole factory can fit inside a shipping container. She hopes the idea will spread to towns all over the world.