They reported 33 grams of iron, 13 grams of silicon and 7 grams of chromium in a standard mobile phone.
Scientists at the University of Plymouth took a novel approach to answering the questions of what’s in your smartphone, and what are the environmental and ethical costs of the materials.
They put one in a blender and turned it into dust.
Dr. Arjan Dijkstra and Dr. Colin Wilkins of the UK university’s School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences launched the project as a science communication tool, in order to connect with more people about the impacts of our mobile-tech lifestyle.
“We rely increasingly on our mobile phones but how many of us actually think what is behind the screen? When you look the answer is often tungsten and cobalt from conflict zones in Africa,” said Dijkstra. “There are also rare elements such as neodymium, praseodymium, gadolinium and dysprosium, not to mention quantities of gold, silver and other high value elements.”
So they blended an entire phone into fine particles and conducted a chemical analysis at 500°C, mixing it with sodium peroxide to examine the elements. They first reported 33 grams of iron, 13 grams of silicon and 7 grams of chromium in the standard mobile phone.
But they also found that array of precious metals and rare earth elements. The phone contained 90 milligrams of silver, and 36 milligrams of gold. Tungsten was at 900mg, molybdenum and cobalt were at 70 mg, neodymium was 160 mg and praseodymium was at 30 mg.
“All of these need to be mined by extracting high value ores, which is putting a significant strain on the planet,” said Dijkstra. For the materials in that phone, you’d need to mine between 10 and 15 kilograms of raw ores, about half of that high-grade gold ore. You’d also need a kilo of copper ore, 750 grams of tungsten, and 200 grams of nickel ore.
That’s adding up, when one considers that 1.4 billion mobile phones are produced each year. The extractive industries in metals, according to a new United Nations Global Resources Outlook report, account for about 10 percent of all current climate change impacts on the planet and 12 percent of the health impacts related to particulate matter in polluted air.
Yet not everyone reads reports. So the University of Plymouth scientists thought they’d mix it up, calling attention to the ever-growing demand that often fuels conflict, and encouraging recycling of materials as the demand escalates.
“Mining can be part of the solution to the world’s problems. But we are now in a climate where people are becoming more socially responsible and interested in the contents of what they are purchasing,” Wilkins said. “Partly on the back of this, several of the major mobile phone companies have committed to upping their recycling rates. It is a positive sign that the throwaway society we have lived in for decades is changing.”
Their work has already made an impact, beginning with the crew that helped create the video of the project. “I now view the phone in my pocket not just as a window on the world but also as a store of precious metals,” said Antony Turner, the CEO at Real World Visuals. “I wonder where these metals have come from and whether they will be reused after the phone is discarded.”