Ordinary Minerals Give Smartphones Extraordinary Capabilities

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Earlier this year, Apple’s iPhone celebrated the 10th anniversary of its introduction to the world, an event that fueled a transformation within the technology and communications sector. This revolution would influence billions of smartphone users around the world forever altering many aspects of human life. 

A graphic of some examples of smartphones.
Today’s smartphones contain almost 75% of the elements from the periodic table. Graphic created by Jason Burton, USGS.​​​​​​​

The seemingly endless abilities of smartphones as communication tools, personal organizers and entertainment devices are possible because of amazing properties held by the elements within a smartphone.

They contain dozens of elements in compounds, metals and composites produced from minerals to form the building blocks of smartphones. This symphony of electronics and chemistry gives smartphone users the ability to talk, text, view, swipe, share, post, tweet, and connect with the world.

During the past decade, smartphones have changed in numerous ways, but many of the same raw materials are used to build smartphones – from iPhones to Androids – regardless of make, model, or year released.

 

What’s inside a smartphone?

“Smartphones have transformed our lives in ways that were unimaginable 30 years ago,” said Larry Meinert, U.S. Geological Survey Deputy Associate Director for Energy and Minerals. “Then, ‘portable’ phones were the size of a shoebox and consisted of 25-30 elements. Today, they fit in your pocket or on your wrist and are made from about 75 different elements, almost three quarters of the periodic table.” 

Over the decades that mobile phones have evolved, from the simple communication devices they were to the handheld computers they have become, the creative use of minerals has greatly enhanced their abilities and battery life, while reducing the size and weight. Today’s smartphones have an abundant variety of elements within them, however, most of them are only used in minuscule quantities.

“Yet, each is still essential for these advanced devices to function,” Meinert said. 

Some of the materials used to construct smartphones are household names like “silicon,” which is used for circuit boards, or “graphite” used in batteries. Then there are lesser known substances like bastnaesite, monazite, and xenotime. These brownish minerals contain neodymium, one of the rare-earth elements used in the magnets that allow smartphone speakers to play music and the vibration motor that notifies you of new, funny cat videos on social media.      

Other minerals used for smartphones include bauxite, the primary source of gallium used for light emitting diode screen backlighting and amplifiers; sphalerite, which is the source of indium used in the screen’s conductive coating; and arsenopyrite, a source of arsenic, which is used in radio frequency and power amplifiers in the form of gallium arsenide. Even an element as common as copper, which conducts electricity and heat, comes from minerals like chalcopyrite and bornite.

 

Where do these minerals come from?

This map show where several minerals are obtained around the world.
This map shows the leading countries that produce minerals for smartphone production. Graphic created by USGS. (Public domain.)​​​​​​​

While it might be difficult to pronounce many of the elements or source minerals that make smartphones possible, naming the places where these materials are obtained is as easy as looking at a globe. The ability of smartphones to navigate the world with its GPS or connect to people in any country is apt considering the materials to build smartphones come from all corners of the planet.

For instance, the industrial sand used to make the quartz in smartphone screens may come from the United States or China, but the potassium added to enhance screen strength could come from Canada, Russia, or Belarus. Australia, Chile, and Argentina often produce the lithium used in battery cathodes, while the hard-to-come-by tantalum – used in smartphone circuitry – mostly comes from Congo, Rwanda, and Brazil.

Because of their worldwide communication ability and their multinational ingredient list, smartphones truly are global devices. However, with minerals being sourced from all over the world, the possibility of supply disruption is more critical than ever, Meinert said.

Therefore, governments and businesses continue to monitor the world supply of the valuable minerals that make technology like smartphones possible, because these high tech devices have become mainstays for billions of people around the globe.

As the technology of smartphones continues to evolve, the elements and source minerals used to make these devices will always be a key factor in their growing and amazing capabilities.

For more information about the minerals that make smartphones possible, click here