Researchers from England’s University of Plymouth have come up with a novel—and attention-grabbing—method of identifying the metals and minerals found in an average iPhone. As Maddie Stone reports for Earther, a newly released demonstration video finds geologists Arjan Dijkstra and Colin Wilkins using a blender to grind an iPhone 4S into dust and tiny chunks.
Drawing on these scant remains, the scientists were able to generate a comprehensive breakdown of the smartphone’s elemental composition. The team noted the presence of at least 39 different elements, but the overall figure is likely far higher. (In a separate Earther article, Stone places the total closer to 75.) At this preliminary stage, Dijkstra explains, he and Wilkins wanted to focus mainly on abundant metals and minerals.
To ascertain the iPhone’s exact chemical makeup, the researchers mixed materials produced by the blending process with a powerful oxidizer called sodium peroxide. Upon being heated to 480 degrees Celsius, the sodium peroxide oxidized the metals, enabling the team to dissolve them into a weak nitric acid solution. The solution, analyzed with an optical emission spectrometer, ultimately yielded the smartphone’s underlying chemistry.
According to Metro’s Jeff Parsons, Dijkstra and Wilkins’s survey revealed 33 grams of iron, 13 grams of silicon and 7 grams of chromium, as well as smaller quantities of similarly abundant elements. So-called “critical elements,” defined as rarer substances with significant supply risk issues, also made an appearance: Amongst others, the scientists identified 900 milligrams of tungsten, 70 milligrams each of cobalt and molybdenum, 160 milligrams of neodymium and 30 milligrams of praseodymium.
Interestingly, the Press Association notes that the team even found traces of precious metals—namely, 90 milligrams of silver and 36 milligrams of gold. As Geek.com’s Stephanie Valera points out, this means that iPhones contain a concentration of gold 100 times higher than that of a mineral resource geologists would describe as “high-grade."
In a statement, Dijkstra asks, “We rely increasingly on our mobile phones but how many of us actually think what is behind the screen?”
“When you look, the answer is often tungsten and cobalt from conflict zones in Africa,” the geologist continues. “There are also rare elements … [and] high value elements. All of these need to be mined by extracting high value ores, which is putting a significant strain on the planet.”
It takes between 10 to 15 kilograms of mined ore to craft a single iPhone, the statement reports. This figure includes 7 kilograms of high-grade gold ore, 1 kilogram of typical copper ore, 750 grams of typical tungsten ore and 200 grams of typical nickel ore.
According to Earther’s Stone, there are a number of potentially serious consequences associated with using rare metals to manufacture iPhones. Most of the time, such metals aren’t recycled, making it difficult to mitigate the environmental toll exacted by mining them. And in some cases, mining has been linked to horrific human rights abuses: Cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo is plagued by evidence of child labor violations, while the trade of tin, tungsten and tantalum in wartorn areas can be used to finance armed conflict.
Apple has previously announced plans to encourage widespread recycling and fight exploitation associated with mining, but as Brian Merchant, author of The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 2017, “so far these projects are merely aspirational.”
As the Plymouth statement notes, the gimmicky iPhone-crushing project aims to not only highlight the level of critical or “conflict” elements found in an average smartphone, but to foster the recycling of such devices once they are no longer in use.
“We hope that [consumers] can now look at their phone in a different light, not just as a high-tech gadget, but also as an item that is manufactured from raw materials, that are mined,” Dijkstra concludes to Earther. “... Every new phone leaves a hole in the ground the size of 10-15 kg of rock—in fact it is a whole series of little holes all around the world. That is, unless it is made from recycled materials.”