Mineral smartphones: Rare earths

Smartphones and other electronics are the mines of tomorrow. More than 40 different elements are in the innards of the phone you have on your pocket or on your desk right now.

 

Periodic table with the elements used on smartphones. Click on the picture to enlarge.
Periodic table with the elements used on smartphones. Click on the picture to enlarge.

Most of them are commonplace metals such as tin or iron. On the other hand, not-so-common elements called rare earth elements (REE) (coloured green on the previous periodic table) build the base of colour screens and cameras on your iPhone or Android phone. They are also widely used in magnets, modern alloys and high tech.

MSP01_Parts

These rare earths are scarce on our planet and difficult to obtain in great quantitites. This is also true for non rare earths such as lithium or tantalum, all of them priority targets for mining companies. In the case of rare earth elements nowadays, they are extracted from two minerals, bastnäsite and parisite. These two are mostly being mined on China, who has the world’s largest reserves of REE.

Overview of rare earth production in 2014. Bastnäsite and parisite can be seen beside the chart.
Overview of worldwide rare earth element production in 2014. Bastnäsite and parisite can be seen besides the chart.

Therefore, as high-tech applications will be more common in the future, the use for rare earths will likely be increasing too. Countries forced to import REE will have to look for an alternative, as reserves on Earth are limited. I see two alternatives: Better recycling or prospecting outside of our planet (moon mines, asteroid mining, etc.).

To sum it up: We carry a hoard of valuable elements on your pocket or bag each day, and this technology uses almost half of the available chemical elements there are. Wow!

Read more on:

  1. Gizmodo: The Metals In Your Phone Aren’t Just Rare; They’re Irreplaceable
  2. Scientific article where they grinded 80 phones and analysed them.
  3. Geology.com: REE and their uses.