What’s in your iPhone? The planet desperately needs the minerals inside

What’s in your iPhone? The planet desperately needs the minerals inside

If you are reading this article on your phone (or tablet or laptop), then you are holding important pieces of the earth’s crust that have been extracted from mines around the world.

iPhone for example contains files An estimated 30 chemical elementsWell-known metals include aluminum, copper, lithium, silver, and even gold. But this is just the beginning. There is also a group of mysterious minerals known as rare earth elements, which are known for their large-scale technologies and renewable energy applications found inside your iPhone.

Many people around the world use a rare earth element, or REE, every day – without knowing it because it’s hidden away in common personal electronic devices. If you’re using an iPhone, the REE called lanthanum helps ensure the screen has vibrant color, while neodymium and dysprosium are credited with helping the device vibrate, among other uses. In electric vehicles, magnets, which are used to help power a vehicle, rely heavily on rare earth elements such as neodymium.

Mark Hobbs/CNET

But experts warn that critical minerals needed to make your smartphones, among other electronic products, are at risk of shortages as the world transitions to a greener economy. Shortages of these irreplaceable minerals, which are a key piece of the puzzle in accelerating the green transition, can also hinder Climate targets to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100a critical tipping point for the damage global warming is doing to our planet.

Researchers have sounded the alarm on smartphones for contributing to elemental depletion, despite their presence in a whole host of electronic products.

“We focused on the smartphone because almost everyone has one and it creates huge problems that lead to waste and depletion of items.” said David Cole Hamilton, Vice President of EuChemS and Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of St Andrews.

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a 2022 European Chemical Society statement He said that the unsustainable use of seven elements in smartphones (carbon, yttrium, gallium, arsenic, silver, indium and tantalum) would pose a serious threat of depletion in the next 100 years.

“It’s amazing that everything in the world is made of only 90 building blocks, 90 naturally occurring chemical elements,” Cole Hamilton said in an earlier statement.

The high cost of producing the phone from carbon

Despite the unsustainable supply of raw materials, many more iPhones are sold every day – and the appeal of Apple’s iconic product is by no means waning. The iPhone just had its most successful September quarter ever, bringing in $42.6 billion in revenue, or nearly half of Apple’s total quarterly revenue of $90.1 billion.

These strong sales have come in spite of all of Apple’s recent lineup of phones, and iPhone 14 and iPhone 13, where you receive minimal tech upgrades. According to CNET’s Managing Editor Patrick Holland, the iPhone 14 “represents one of the lowest annual upgrades in Apple history.” However, these sales figures could also have been boosted by people upgrading older models.

Whatever the reason, environmentalists question the need to upgrade smartphones every year given the environmental cost, which includes the polluting extraction of raw materials at risk as well as the accompanying carbon emissions released into the atmosphere.

Read more: Getting a new iPhone every two years makes less sense than ever


Long before iPhones roll off the assembly lines in Zhengzhou, minerals are pulled from the ground from all over the world, which is the first step in the life of the iPhone. This is the only rare earth metal mine in the United States. It is located in Mountain Pass, California, and was operated by Molycorp before filing for bankruptcy in 2015.

Jay Green/CNET

The typical smartphone generates most of its carbon footprint at the beginning of its life cycle: the manufacturing phase. Take the iPhone 14 Pro, for example. Apple says that it emits from 65 to 116 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during the life cycle of the iPhone produced. Of that, 81%, or 53 to 94 kg, of carbon dioxide is emitted during the production process, which Apple says includes the extraction, production, and transportation of raw materials, as well as the manufacture, transportation, and assembly of all parts and product packaging.

This means that the manufacturing process is the most carbon-intensive stage in the iPhone’s life cycle, reducing CO2 emissions in the remaining stages: use, transportation and end-of-life, although its environmental impact is still significant.

This is not unique to iPhone only. Google’s flagship The Pixel 7 produces approximately 84% of the carbon footprint per phone in the manufacturing phase of its lifecycle. As environmental advocacy group Greenpeace points out, “Various analyzes of Life have found that hardware manufacturing is by far the most carbon-intensive phase of smartphones.”

“Since manufacturing accounts for almost all of a smartphone’s carbon footprint, the only factor that can reduce a smartphone’s carbon footprint is extending the life expectancy of a smartphone,” Deloitte wrote in the 2021 report.


Estimated carbon footprint of iPhone 14 Pro over its life cycle.

Apple/screenshot by Sareena Dayaram

Rare Earth Metals: Technically Abundant, Effectively Rare

With names like dysprosium, neodymium, and praseodymium, the rare earth elements aren’t exactly household names. But the products they use — including iPhones and Tesla cars — sure are.

In smartphones, rare earth elements tend to make up only a small portion of a device’s mass, yet rare earth mining is a huge, profitable global business. This is due in part to the global ubiquity of high-tech devices such as smartphones, which require the conductive and magnetic properties of metals to help them function with the latest technology. nation It is estimated that the number of smartphone subscriptions globally has exceeded 6 billion, and this number is expected to increase by hundreds of millions in the coming years.

Neodymium Iron Boron Permanent Magnet (Nd2Fe14B).

Perhaps the most important use of the rare earth metal is neodymium in an alloy of iron used to make very strong permanent magnets. This makes it possible to miniaturize many electronic devices, including cell phones, microphones, amplifiers, and electronic musical instruments. It is also used in electric cars and wind turbines.

Ames Lab

While rare earth elements are essential to the survival of smartphone makers, the importance of these minerals extends far beyond the confines of tech hubs like San Francisco, South Korea, and mainland China.

According to 2021 International Energy Agency report, the world will not be able to combat the climate crisis unless there is a significant increase in the supply of rare earths as well as the so-called “green metals” (such as lithium, copper and cobalt). These minerals, used in smartphones and other consumer electronics, are essential for technologies that are expected to play a major role in addressing the climate crisis such as electric cars, wind turbines and other elements needed for a clean energy transition. The report says demand for these elements is increasing as countries around the world transition to green energy to help meet climate goals.

“Lithium and rare earths will soon be more important than oil and gas,” Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market, wrote in September. Linkedin post.

Rare earth elements are naturally more abundant than their name suggests, but extracting, processing, and purifying the minerals into a usable form poses a host of environmental problems. China, which produces the vast majority of the world’s renewable energy supply, has suffered worrying environmental consequences including toxic pollution of water and soil.


Powdered versions of rare earth metals such as neodymium and europium. It took a lot of work and processing to get it to a powdery state.

Jay Green/CNET

Despite this set of issues, the majority of materials used to make smartphones are not recycled at the end of a smartphone’s life, even with exchange programs made by companies like Apple. Experts say that by recycling e-waste, green minerals used in consumer electronics such as phones can be recovered once the products reach the end of their life.

“We suggest that people keep their phone longer (to reduce demand), fix their phone if something breaks (repair), give the phone to someone else if they have to get a new phone (reuse) and then hand it over to a company that is ethically recycling once That can’t really be used (recycling),” said Cole Hamilton.

“This way, we can have a circular economy for phones.”

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