The metals inside your iPhone are more valuable than you thought—here’s why

This story is part of Choosing the Eartha series that chronicles the impact of climate change and explores what is being done to solve the problem.

If you are reading this article on a phone (or tablet or laptop), in your hands you hold important pieces of the earth’s crust, extracted from mines around the world.

The iPhone, for example, contains about 30 chemical elements, including metals known as aluminum, copper, lithium, silver and, yes, even gold. But that’s just the beginning. There’s also an array of obscure metals known as rare earth elements, prized for their wide-ranging renewable energy and technology applications, hidden inside your iPhone.

Many people around the world use rare earth elements, or REEs, every day without even knowing it because they are hidden in ordinary personal electronic devices. If you use an iPhone, a REE called lanthanum helps ensure that the screen has a vivid pop of color, while neodymium and dysprosium are credited with helping the device vibrate, among other uses. In electric cars, the magnets used to power the vehicle rely heavily on rare earths such as neodymium.

Mark Hobbs/CNET

But experts warn that the critical metals needed to make your smartphones, among other electronic products, are at risk of shortages as the world transitions to a greener economy. A shortage of these irreplaceable metals, which are a key piece of the puzzle to speeding up the green shift, could derail it climate goals to prevent global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100a decisive turning point for the damage that global warming is causing on our planet.

Researchers have sounded the alarm bells about smartphones contributing to depletion of the elements, even though they are found in a whole range of electronic products.

“We focused on the smartphone because almost everyone has one and it creates big problems that lead to waste and running out of items.” said David Cole-Hamilton, vice president of EuChemS and emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of St. Andrews.


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A 2022 European Chemical Society statement said that the unsustainable use of seven elements in smartphones (carbon, yttrium, gallium, arsenic, silver, indium and tantalum) will pose a serious threat of depletion over the next 100 years.

“It’s amazing that everything in the world is made up of only 90 building blocks, the 90 chemical elements found in nature,” Cole-Hamilton said in an earlier statement.

The high carbon cost of phone manufacturing

Despite the unsustainable supply of raw materials, many iPhones are being sold every day and the appeal of Apple’s iconic product is not diminishing in any way. The iPhone just had its most successful September quarter ever, generating $42.6 billion in revenue, or nearly half of Apple’s overall quarterly revenue of $90.1 billion.

Those robust sales have come despite each of Apple’s recent phone lineups, the iPhone 14 and iPhone 13, receiving minimal technical updates. According to CNET editor-in-chief Patrick Holland, the iPhone 14 represents “one of the smallest year-over-year updates in Apple’s history.” However, those sales figures could also have been boosted by people simply updating older models.

Whatever the reason, environmentalists question the need to upgrade smartphones every year given the environmental cost, which includes the polluting extraction of vulnerable raw materials and the related carbon emissions released into the atmosphere.

Read more: Getting a new iPhone every 2 years makes less sense than ever

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Long before iPhones roll off the assembly lines in Zhengzhou, minerals are being mined from the earth from all over the world, the first step in the life of an iPhone. This is the only rare earth mine in the United States. It is located in Mountain Pass, California and was operated by Molycorp before filing for bankruptcy in 2015.

Jay Greene/CNET

A typical smartphone generates the majority of its carbon emissions early in its life cycle: the manufacturing stage. Take the iPhone 14 Pro, for example. Apple says it emits 65 to 116 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the life of the iPhone it produces. Of that, 81 percent or 53 to 94 kg of carbon dioxide is emitted during the manufacturing process, which Apple says includes the extraction, production and transportation of raw materials as well as the production, transportation and assembly of all parts and packaging of the product.

This means that the manufacturing process is the most carbon-intensive phase of the iPhone’s life cycle, dwarfing the carbon dioxide emitted in the remaining phases: use, transport and end of life, although their environmental impact is still significant .

This isn’t unique to just the iPhone. Google’s flagship Pixel 7 phone produces about 84 percent of phone carbon emissions in the manufacturing stage of its lifecycle. As environmental advocacy group Greenpeace points out, “various analyzes of life find that device manufacturing is by far the most carbon-intensive phase of smartphones.”

“Since manufacturing accounts for nearly all of a smartphone’s carbon footprint, the single most important factor that could reduce a smartphone’s carbon footprint is to extend its expected lifespan,” Deloitte wrote in a 2021 report.

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The estimated carbon footprint of the iPhone 14 Pro over its entire life cycle.

Apple/Screenshot by Sareena Dayaram

Rare Earth Minerals: Technically abundant, actually rare

With names like dysprosium, neodymium and praseodymium, the rare earth elements aren’t exactly household names. But the products they’re used in, including iPhones and Tesla cars, sure are.

In smartphones, REEs tend to comprise only a fraction of the mass of the device, but rare earth mining is a huge and lucrative global business. This is partly due to the global ubiquity of high-tech devices such as smartphones, which require the conductive and magnetic properties of minerals to help them operate at the cutting edge. Statista estimates that the number of smartphone subscriptions globally has exceeded 6 billion and this number is expected to increase by several hundred million in the coming years.

A neodymium-iron-boron (Nd2Fe14B) permanent magnet.

Perhaps the most important use of the rare earth metal neodymium is in an alloy with iron used to make very strong permanent magnets. This allows for the miniaturization of many electronic devices, including cell phones, microphones, speakers, and electronic musical instruments. It is also used in electric vehicles and wind turbines.

Ames laboratory

While REEs are critical to the survival of smartphone makers, the importance of these minerals extends far beyond the confines of tech hubs like San Francisco, South Korea and mainland China.

According to a 2021 report by the International Energy Agency, the world will not be able to fight the climate crisis unless there is a drastic increase in the supply of rare earths and other so-called “green metals” (such as lithium , copper, and cobalt). These metals, used in smartphones and other consumer electronic devices, are vital for technologies expected to play a key role in addressing the climate crisis such as electric vehicles, wind turbines and other elements required for a clean energy transition. Demand for these items is rising as countries around the world switch to green energy to help meet climate goals, the report said.

“Lithium and rare earths will soon be more important than oil and gas,” wrote Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market, in a September LinkedIn post.

REEs are naturally more abundant than their name suggests, but the extraction, processing and refining of metals into a usable form poses a number of environmental problems. China, which produces the vast majority of the world’s supply of rare earths, has suffered alarming environmental consequences, including toxic contamination of water and soil.

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Powdered versions of rare earth minerals such as neodymium and europium. It took a lot of work and crafting to get it to this powdery state.

Jay Greene/CNET

Despite this array of problems, most of the materials used to make smartphones aren’t recycled at the end of a smartphone’s life, even with trade-in programs made by companies like Apple. With e-waste recycling, the green metals used in consumer electronics like phones can be reclaimed once the products reach the end of their life, experts say.

“We propose that people keep their phones for longer (reducing demand), have their phones repaired if something breaks (repair), give their phone to someone else if they need to get a new one (reuse), and hand it over to a “This company makes recycling ethical once they can no longer be used (recycle),” said Cole-Hamilton.

“In this way, we can have a circular economy of phones.”

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