The metal inside your iPhone is more valuable than you think: Here’s why

If you’re reading this article on your phone (or tablet, or laptop), you’re holding in your hands a vital piece of the Earth’s crust that has been mined from mines around the world.

This story is part of CNET Zeroa series that documents the effects of climate change and explores what is being done about the issue.

For example, an iPhone contains an estimated 30 different chemical elements, ranging from well-known metals such as aluminum, copper, lithium, silver, and even gold. But that’s just the beginning. Also hidden inside the iPhone are many obscure metals known as rare earths, which are prized for a wide range of technology and renewable energy applications.

Many people around the world use rare earth elements (REEs) on a daily basis. Rare earth elements are hidden in common personal electronic devices and are used without our knowledge. If you’re using an iPhone, his REE called Lantern helps give your screen a vibrant pop of color, while neodymium and dysprosium are used for things like helping your device vibrate. In electric vehicles, the magnets used to power the vehicle rely heavily on rare earths such as neodymium.

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Mark Hobbs/CNET

But experts warn that as the world moves to a greener economy, it is at risk of running out of key metals needed to make smartphones and other electronic products. A critical piece of the puzzle to accelerate the green shift, a shortage of these irreplaceable metals could derail plans. The climate goal is to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100.a critical turning point in the damage global warming is inflicting on the planet.

Researchers have warned that smartphones are contributing to the depletion of the element, even though it is present in a variety of electronic products.

“We focused on smartphones because almost everyone owns a smartphone, which creates a huge problem leading to waste and element depletion.” Vice President of EuChemS and Honorary Professor of Chemistry at the University of St Andrews Professor David Cole-Hamilton said:

Look at this: How rocks power your iPhone

A 2022 European Chemical Society statement states that the unsustainable use of seven elements in smartphones – carbon, yttrium, gallium, arsenic, silver, indium and tantalum – poses a serious threat of depletion over the next 100 years. Ta.

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

High carbon costs in mobile phone manufacturing

Despite the unsustainable supply of raw materials, thousands of iPhones are sold every day, and the appeal of Apple’s iconic product has never diminished. The iPhone just had its most successful September quarter ever, generating $42.6 billion in sales, nearly half of Apple’s $90.1 billion in quarterly sales.

This strong sales came despite all of Apple’s recent phone lineup. iPhone14 The iPhone 13 receives minimal technology upgrades. According to CNET Editor-in-Chief Patrick Holland, the iPhone 14 is “one of the most minimal year-over-year upgrades in Apple’s history.” However, those sales could also have been boosted by people simply upgrading older models.

Whatever the reason, environmentalists question the need to upgrade smartphones every year, given the environmental costs of mining fragile raw materials that are prone to pollution and the associated carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

read more: Buying a new iPhone every two years makes less sense than ever

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Long before an iPhone rolls off the assembly line in Zhengzhou, minerals from all over the world are extracted from the ground. This is the very first step in the birth of the iPhone. It is the only rare earth mineral mine in the United States. Located in Mountain Pass, California, it was operated by Molycorp until it filed for bankruptcy in 2015.

Jay Green/CNET

A typical smartphone generates most of its carbon emissions at the beginning of its lifecycle, during the manufacturing stage. Let’s take the iPhone 14 Pro as an example. Apple has announced that each iPhone produced releases between 65 and 116 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during its life cycle.Of this, 81%, or 53 to 94 kg, of carbon dioxide is emitted during the production process, which Apple says includes not only the extraction, production, and transportation of raw materials, but also the production of all parts and product packaging. It also includes manufacturing, transportation and assembly.

This is despite the fact that the manufacturing process is the most carbon-intensive stage of an iPhone’s lifecycle and still has a significant environmental impact, while the remaining stages of use, transportation, and end-of-life This means far less carbon dioxide is emitted.

This isn’t just limited to iPhones. Google’s flagship smartphone, the Pixel 7, emits approximately 84% of the carbon footprint per smartphone during the manufacturing stage of its lifecycle. As Greenpeace points out, “various lifestyle analyzes have found that device manufacturing is the most carbon-intensive stage of a smartphone.”

“Manufacturing accounts for nearly all of a smartphone’s carbon footprint, so the single biggest factor that can reduce a smartphone’s carbon footprint is by extending its expected lifespan,” Deloitte said in a 2021 report. Stated.

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Estimated carbon footprint over the lifecycle of iPhone 14 Pro.

Apple/Screenshot by Sareena Dayaram

Rare Earth Minerals: Technically Abundant, Practically Rare

Rare earth elements have less familiar names, such as dysprosium, neodymium, and praseodymium. But the products they’re used in, including iPhones and Tesla cars, certainly are.

In smartphones, REEs tend to make up a small portion of the device’s mass, but rare earth mining is a large and lucrative global business. Part of the reason is the global proliferation of high-tech devices such as smartphones, which require the conductive and magnetic properties of minerals to function at the cutting edge. Statista estimates that the number of smartphone subscriptions worldwide is over 6 billion, and that number is expected to increase by hundreds of millions over the next few years.

Neodymium iron boron (Nd2Fe14B) permanent magnet. Neodymium iron boron (Nd2Fe14B) permanent magnet.

Perhaps the most important use of the rare earth metal neodymium is as an alloy with iron, which is used to make very strong permanent magnets. This enables the miniaturization of many electronic devices, such as mobile phones, microphones, speakers, and electronic musical instruments. It is also used in electric cars and wind turbines.

Ames Institute

REEs are essential to the survival of smartphone manufacturers, but the importance of these minerals extends far beyond the borders of tech hubs like San Francisco, South Korea, and mainland China.

The world will not be able to combat the climate crisis unless supplies of rare earths and other so-called “green metals” (such as lithium, copper and metals) increase significantly, according to a 2021 report from the International Energy Agency. . and cobalt). These metals, used in smartphones and other consumer electronics, could play a key role in tackling the climate crisis, including in electric cars, wind turbines and other items needed for the transition to clean energy. It is essential for the expected technology. Demand for these elements is rapidly increasing as countries around the world transition to green energy to meet climate change goals, the report said.

“Lithium and rare earths will soon become more important than oil and gas,” European Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton said in a LinkedIn post in September.

Although rare earth elements are more abundant in nature than their name suggests, extracting, processing, and refining the metals into usable forms poses a variety of environmental problems. China, which produces most of the world’s rare earth resources, suffers from alarming environmental impacts, including toxic pollution of water and soil.

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Powdered versions of rare earth minerals such as neodymium and europium. A lot of work and processing was required to get it into this powder state.

Jay Green/CNET

Despite all these issues, the majority of materials used to manufacture smartphones cannot be recycled at the end of the smartphone’s lifespan, even with trade-in programs created by companies like Apple. not. By recycling e-waste, green metals used in household appliances such as phones can be recovered after the products reach the end of their lifespan, experts say.

“We want people to keep their phones longer (reducing demand), have their phones fixed when something breaks (repairs), and ask others to buy new ones if they need to buy a new one. “We offer to give away the phone (reuse) and then give it to a company, and when it’s really no longer usable, we do an ethical recycling (recycling),” Cole Hamilton said.

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

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