Miracle of metals make smartphones smart
The elements of pocket-sized computers wielded by 3 billion Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – January 1, 2020
Last updated 6/27/2020 at 4:56am
Morning alarm, news feed, email delivery system, daily planner, camera, calculator, social media medium and, oh yeah, a way to talk with family, friends and colleagues – smartphones have become a necessity for roughly 3 billion of the humans on Earth. While necessity may seem like hyperbole, especially for a device we lived without just a decade ago, how did you feel the last time you left yours behind even for a few minutes?
Smartphones are so commonplace that it is easy to overlook the technological power we all now possess and the materials that allow this massive computing capacity to fit into the palm of our hand.
Today's iPhones, for example, have more than 1 million times the memory and 100,000 times the processing power than the Apollo guidance computer used by NASA to land the first man on the moon in 1969. More simply put, a modern smartphone has the computing capacity to simultaneously guide 100,000 Apollo-era landers safely to the moon.
How can so much computing power be packed into a pocket-sized device? We have material scientists and their ability to ferret out the unique properties of each element on the periodic table for that.
American Elements Chairman and CEO Michael Silver, whose company sells almost every element on the periodic table, points out that the global headquarters for innovation is called Silicon Valley for a reason.
"It was really materials science that began the computer age," the American Elements founder and CEO said. "When you are talking about inventing things in modern times, you are talking about materials science."
3 billion smidges of gold
While each brand and model of these pocket-sized computers have their own mix of metals, at least 70 elements are used in their collective construction, which represents more than 80 percent of the stable elements on the periodic table.
The mix of metals in any given smartphone ranges from common metals such as copper and zinc, to precious metals such as gold and platinum, to exotic metals such as rare earths and germanium.
Given the compact size, the amount of any one of these metals in a single smartphone is small. But, when you consider that nearly 3 billion people – or roughly 40 percent of all the individuals on Earth – own at least one smartphone, the smidge of metals in each unit add up.
Take gold for example. This precious metal is a great conductor of electricity and does not corrode, a combination that makes it irreplaceable in ensuring the delicate but critical electronic connections are reliable, even though it sells for more than US$1,500/oz (or about US$43.75 million per ton).
According to Dell, the average smartphone has about one-thousandth-of-an-oz of gold, or about US$1.50 worth. While one smartphone does not move the gold market dial, the roughly 1.7 million oz, or nearly US$2.4 billion worth, of the precious metal used in the approximately 1.5 billion of these technological marvels sold in 2019 is a major driver of demand.
The same 1.5-billion-smartphone-per-year multiplier can be applied to any of the wide range of metals used to make smartphones smarter.
Unfolding screen technology
The unique and often surprising metals that go into your smartphone begins with the screen, which goes way beyond just a display for viewing – it is the control panel for accessing this powerful handheld personal assistant.
Our ability to type, tap, swipe and scroll our way through articles such as this one is made possible by indium-tin oxide, which is used as a transparent conducting film applied to virtually every flat-panel display and touchscreen on the market. This thin and invisible layer lying just under the glass senses the changes in the electrical field caused by the touch of your fingertip.
When it comes to the combination of characteristics required for this seemingly magical control over your smartphone – transparency, electrical conductivity, strong adherence to glass, corrosion resistance and stability – indium-tin oxide currently has no equal.
Given the rapidly changing technologies of the 21st century, however, it is likely that scientists will discover new materials that will knock indium-tin oxide off its touchscreen throne.
A combination of two cutting edge materials – graphene and silver nanowires – could in fact be the new touchscreen king.
This combination is more conductive than indium-tin oxide and less expensive, largely due to the fact you need less of it to accomplish the same thing. The real kicker, however, is graphene and silver nanowires provide the flexibility needed to create foldable touchscreens.
These bendable screens are already beginning to appear on the market in products such as the Samsung Galaxy Fold, a smartphone with a 4.5-inch screen that unfolds to reveal a 7.3-inch screen more on par with a tablet.
And big tech companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Spotify and Twitter worked with Samsung to create apps that take advantage of the new multi-display options Fold offers.
"The new Samsung Galaxy Fold has the potential to usher in a new era of design, and it will be exciting to see what new use cases a foldable experience will unlock for users," said Facebook Vice President of Business Development Marc Shedroff.
The possibilities for flexible screens made possible by graphene and silver nanowire are seemingly endless – from smartwatches that unfold into smartphones, to smartphones that unfold into personal computers.
Working behind the screens
As exciting as the rapidly transforming display technology is, it is the metals working behind the screens that are making smartphones smarter with every new model.
To find out what these behind the screen metals are, University of Plymouth scientists threw a smartphone in a blender. Analyzing the dust, these researchers found mundane metals such as iron and silicon, as well as more rare metals such as cobalt and rare earth elements (REEs).
"We rely increasingly on our mobile phones but how many of us actually think what is behind the screen?" asked Dr Arjan Dijkstra, a geologist at the University of Plymouth School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences. "When you look the answer is often tungsten and cobalt from conflict zones in Africa. There are also rare elements such as neodymium, praseodymium, gadolinium and dysprosium, not to mention quantities of gold, silver and other high value elements."
While each metal and mineral has a role to play, it is safe to say that smartphones would just be phones without REEs, a group of 17 elements that are as intriguing as their name suggests.
While rare earths is a bit of a misnomer, they do have some unique characteristics that make them both hard to separate into usable metals and irreplaceable in developing smarter, smaller and more dynamic electronic devises.
"There are literally hundreds of uses for rare earths – they are unique materials, almost alchemistical magic," said American Elements CEO Michael Silver.
The unparalleled magnetism of some rare earths is one of the properties that is so vital to technology.
It is powerful REE magnets that allow tiny motors to create the vibration that alerts you of calls, texts, emails, Tweets or other incoming message when the situation calls for you to turn off your favorite ringtones.
Powerful REE magnets are also the reason that speakers so tiny that they fit in your ear can deliver rich and full-bodied music that rivals the large, high-fidelity sound systems of two decades ago.
The phone Dr. Dijkstra reduced to dust in the blender contained 160 milligrams of neodymium and 30mg of praseodymium, two of the magnetic rare earths.
Beyond their behind-the-screen magnetic powers, REEs almost mystical properties show up on the surface.
Europium, yttrium, gadolinium and cerium bring vivid reds, greens and blues to your screen; ytterbium lasers for camera autofocus, especially in low light; and lanthanum in the lenses allows for the clear photos you have become accustomed to uploading to your favorite social media.
Virtual gold, silver mine
The University of Plymouth blender experiment also revealed that your smartphone is a virtual gold and silver mine.
While copper is the most widely used metal for transporting electricity, whether it is from the powerplant to our homes or from the battery to the circuit board in your smartphone, it is second to silver, when it comes to the best metallic conductor of electricity.
At around US$250 per pound, however, it would cost around US$110,000 to wire the average single-family home with silver wiring, compared to about US$12,000 with copper. While the extra costs do not make sense for big electrical delivery projects, when you want to build a powerful pocket computer, a little bit of silver goes a long way.
Though gold is the third best conductor of electricity and by far the most expensive, this precious metal has an invaluable advantage for the micro-circuits in smartphones – it does not tarnish. This makes the yellow precious metal worth its weight when it comes to connectors, switches, relays and other contact points where infinitesimal corrosion could block the tiny electrical impulse and put your phone out of commission.
The University of Plymouth scientists found that each phone contains roughly 90mg of silver and 36mg of gold. That comes to roughly 4.3 million oz of silver and 1.7 million oz of gold in the 1.5 billion smartphones produced each year.
The phone-in-a-blender analysis was an eye-opening experience for Antony Turner, CEO at Real World Visuals, an animation company that created a video that provides visual insight into the amount of metals that go into phones each year.
"I now view the phone in my pocket not just as a window on the world but also as a store of precious metals," said Turner. "I wonder where these metals have come from and whether they will be re-used after the phone is discarded."
Sustainable metal sources
As smartphone technology continues to rapidly unfold, both literally and figuratively, we will likely continue to trade in our outmoded pocket computer for the latest and greatest model.
Echoing Turner's wonderings, technology companies are thinking outside the box to ensure that the metals inside your new smartphone come from the most ethical and sustainable sources possible.
These solutions include using blockchain technology to trace the metals being put into their latest model to mines that treat their workers fairly and demonstrate a strong commitment to environmental protections; building unique partnerships with conservationist and mining companies; and stepping up efforts to recycle antiquated technologies and put the metals back into new models with previously unmatched computing power and features.
"Mining can be part of the solution to the world's problems. But we are now in a climate where people are becoming more socially responsible and interested in the contents of what they are purchasing," said Dr. Dijkstra. "Partly on the back of this, several of the major mobile phone companies have committed to upping their recycling rates. It is a positive sign that the throwaway society we have lived in for decades is changing, and we hope this project will encourage more people to ask questions about their own behaviors."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Future Metal Tech News articles will dig deeper into the individual and collective efforts being employed by technology companies to ethically and sustainably source metals.