A smartphone contains around 60 raw materials. This includes cobalt and other, more rare earth elements. These raw materials are extracted in a few countries of origin. The difficult and hard work is sometimes life-threatening, and not only for the adults, but also for the numerous children who take part in the extraction.
Life without a smartphone? Very few people can imagine this scenario. As of 2020, around 3.5 billion people across the globe own such a device, and the trend is rising. In addition, we use smartphones on average for up to three hours a day – and not just for calling and chatting. We use it as a camera, listening to music, banking, shopping, and the list goes on. For this reason and since the devices are now available almost everywhere, we no longer consider smartphones as luxury items.
What is the smartphone made of?
You can appreciate how luxurious a cell phone is, however, if you take it apart and look closer at what it actually consists of. It contains various individual parts such as the display, circuit board, battery, microphone, and loudspeakers. Plastic, glass, and ceramics make up most of the smartphone. The following metals are also used in the production of smartphones:
- Copper: Used for wires and printed circuit boards of smartphones. Main countries of origin: Chile, China, USA
- Aluminum: Used as a shielding plate to shield the electronics from the electromagnetic radiation coming from the antenna. Main countries of origin: Jamaica, China, Russia, Canada.
- Iron: Used for all screws. Main countries of origin: Brazil, China, Australia, India.
- Palladium: Used for the contact surfaces between individual components. Main countries of origin: Canada, South Africa, Russia.
- Silver: Used in the conductive tracks of the printed circuit board. Main countries of origin: Peru, Mexico, China, Australia.
- Gold: Used for the smartphone’s contacts on a SIM card and on the battery. Main countries of origin: China, South Africa, Australia, USA.
- Cobalt: Used for the battery. Main countries of origin: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, China.
- Tantalum: Used as a capacitor. Main countries of origin: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Australia, Brazil.
- Tin: Used as solder that connects the components of the smartphone to the copper layer of the board. Main countries of origin: China, Indonesia, Peru.
- Gallium: Used in LEDs (light-emitting diodes) as back lighting of the display or camera light. Main country of origin: Kazakhstan.
- Indium: Used for LCD displays. This is a very rare metal and it’s main countries of origin are China, Canada, Peru.
Rare earth elements
A single device contains seven materials that were classified as so-called “critical raw materials” or rare earth elements by the EU Commission in 2014 and are becoming increasingly scarce worldwide. Mobile phones contain additional rare metals, for example, neodymium and cerium. These are used in very small quantities in microphones or loudspeakers. The search for these materials is becoming increasingly complicated and dangerous.
More about the origin of elements on earth: What is the Big Bang? A Short Answer.
Where do materials used for smartphones come from?
The mining and extraction of the various raw materials take place in mines in the respective countries of origin. Apart from the fact that the extraction of raw materials and the production of mobile phones are associated with a very high expenditure of resources and energy, there are also social consequences. International standards and human rights are repeatedly violated.
People in Bolivia and the Congo work in steep, self-made shafts that could theoretically collapse at any time. They do not wear protective masks or clothing. Protective masks are necessary, especially in the Congo cobalt mines. Amnesty International confirmed, inhaling cobalt dust can cause serious lung diseases. In addition, due to the fact that wages are too low, children have to work several hours a day and have to look for raw materials with their bare hands.
Does it always has to be a new smartphone?
Knowing what raw materials are in a smartphone and the conditions under which they are extracted, it almost sounds absurd when surveys show that only about 13 percent of people use their cell phones for more than two years. The bulk of the devices ends up in the garbage or in the drawer at home. If you want to make a contribution, you can easily do something and use the smartphone until it is really no longer usable. Also, a new purchase is not always necessary: if it is simply a different model, it is worth taking a look at the used goods market.
Mobile phone components
1.- Rear camera and flash. In itself, it is an independent device. The flash, in the most advanced models, has two LEDs, one warm and one cold.
2.- Antenna. An element that receives the electrical signals from the cellular network and sends them to the modem to transform them into voice and data.
3.- Connections. An area where the data buses are attached to the device’s elements and controlled by the motherboard and processor.
4.- Front camera. The selfie camera by definition. Typically, it has a lower resolution and a wider field of view than the main camera.
5.- Processor + RAM. Known as the brain of the system, it is a microchip similar to that of computers. The RAM memory stores the data.
6.- Modem. Establishes communication with the cellular network. It is the component that functions as a telephone in the smartphone. It is also responsible for the data connection.
7.- Buttons. Although most smartphones are tactile, some are not. Generally, it has two functions: power on and power off.
8.- Gyroscope and accelerometer. In addition to measuring moving objects on three axes, these sensors also measure their magnitude.
9.- SIM. The SIM tray is one of the elements that may disappear with the implementation of the virtual SIM.
10.- Speaker. Miniaturizing a loudspeaker while maintaining its quality is always difficult, which is why mobile phones tend to sound mediocre.
11.- USB Connection and jack. Recharges the battery and provides data access. A jack lets users connect headphones.
12.- Microphone. There are mobiles that use up to three microphones to obtain enhanced sound fidelity in conversations or videos.
13.- Haptic engine. It detects pressure on the screen and reacts accordingly.
14.- Battery. Energy is stored in the smartphone’s batteries to power its circuits and screen. Most smartphones have lithium-ion batteries.
15.- Finger scanner. This is a security feature that enables the recognition of fingerprints and only gives access if the fingerprints match the authorized ones.
16.- Screen. Its size, between 4 and 5.4 inches, and quality determine the overall feeling of the equipment.