Smartphone and tablet packaging doesn’t have an ingredients list. You might think it is easy for high-tech companies to print them if asked, but the truth is manufacturers have no idea what’s in their gadgets. They outsource nearly everything – components like vibration motors, screen and speakers. And each of these component manufacturers outsource to smaller manufacturers. The process continues — seven to ten layers deep – until it reaches a mine. The secreted path from mine to smartphone is one of the most critical, yet least understood aspects of our high-tech lives. This complex supply chain shields high-tech companies from their resource needs.
If companies and the general public understood what materials today’s gadgets need, they would understand the indispensable role of rare metals. They are what make our electronic wizardry lighter more powerful and more portable. Therefore, understanding where these metals come from and how they are used is critical to understand the diverse foundation our high-tech lives are built on.
Take the smartphone. Behind the screen is the most compact computer hardware on the planet, with elements coming from every continent. The fact that we can produce the smartphone is as impressive as the functions it can perform. The screen responds to your touch because of the rare metal indium, which serves as the invisible link, a transparent conductor between the phone and your finger. A dusting of europium and terbium provides brilliant red and green hues on the screen, specks of tantalum regulate power within the phone, and lithium stores the power that makes the phone mobile. Rare metals are also crucial to manufacturing the iPhone’s components: cerium buffs the glass smooth to the molecular level. Let’s take a closer look.
David S. Abraham is a natural resource strategist who previously analysed risk on Wall Street and at an energy-trading firm, oversaw natural-resources programs at the White House Office of Management and Budget, and ran a water-focused NGO in Africa. He currently directs the Technology, Rare and Electronics Materials Center. His writing has appeared in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times.
‘In The Elements of Power, David Abraham attempts to peel back the screen on our devices and discover what’s behind’ — Henry Sanderson, Financial Times