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These Scientists Ground an iPhone to Dust to Figure Out What’s Inside



Image: University of Plymouth

You probably don't spend much time thinking about what your smartphone is made of. But perhaps you should, because the average telephone is a dizzyingly complex compendium of metals and minerals from all over the Earth.

Now, a group of scientists from the University of Plymouth is trying to demystify the list of ingredients, hoping to raise awareness of the environmental and human impact of our devices. They do it as brutally as possible: rectify the phones and measure the items inside.

As a preliminary demonstration of their work, the video just published illustrates in detail the chemical analysis of the team of an iPhone 4S. Arjan Dijkstra, a professor of igneous petrology and one of the main scientists behind the project, told Earther that his team initially detected at least 39 items on the phone. They would have detected more, he said, but "they just wanted to concentrate on the more abundant ones" for the purpose of the demonstration. (Other experts have previously told me that an iPhone contains about 75 items. Apple did not comment at the time.)

Deciphering the elements inside the phone starts with the highly scientific phase of letting it fall into a blender. After the phone has been shredded into a mix of fine powder and small pieces, the material is mixed with sodium peroxide in small crucibles and heated to 480 degrees Celsius. Sodium peroxide, explains Dijkstra, oxidizes all metals so that they can be dissolved in a solution of weak nitric acid. The exact elemental composition of this solution is then analyzed using an optical emission spectrometer.

The work has so far largely served to verify what we have already understood on smartphones: they contain a lot of ingredients. The elements of a phone range from familiar objects such as carbon and iron (both found in the steel body of the iPhone 4S, which later models have replaced with aluminum). They also contain a smattering of more exotic ingredients often described as "rare" or "critical" metals: tungsten, cobalt, molybdenum and rare earth metals dysprosium, neodymium, praseodymium and gadolinium, to name a few.

metals are extracted only in small quantities every year, but they are absolutely essential for the functioning of modern technology.

Image: University of Plymouth

Many of the elements that the iPhone analysis revealed have been released on Apple's most recent environmental report – which details its efforts to reduce the use of extracted metals reinforcing its recycling programs – while others are not. Most rare metals are now recycled at very low rates, which is unfortunate because their mining exploitation often causes serious environmental damage. If done without proper supervision, it can also lead to serious human rights violations. For example, cobalt mining, which occurs mainly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been linked to the rampant use of child labor. In the same region devastated by war, tin, tungsten and tantalum can fuel armed conflicts.

Greater transparency about what our devices contain can help raise awareness of these impacts. For example, by quantifying the most abundant metals in 4S, the researchers were able to estimate that the production of the 5-ounce device requires about 10-15 kilograms of rock to be extracted from the Earth.

"We hope that [consumers] can now look at their phone in a different light, not only as a high-tech gadget, but also as an object made of raw materials, which are extracted," Dijkstra told Earther in an e-mail. "So each new phone leaves a whole in the soil of the size of 10-15 kg of rock – in reality it is all a series of small holes all over the world. That is, unless it is made from recycled materials."

Perhaps this demonstration will encourage Apple to accelerate its recycling efforts. Meanwhile, the team is analyzing more phones, with a particular eye on how rare earth levels – whose extraction produces high levels of toxic waste byproducts – and elements such as cobalt and tantalum known to fuel conflict, are Cambiando.

They rely on volunteers to supply the old phones, so if you have one you are thinking of throwing in the trash, you can now use it to the fullest.


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