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These scientists are setting up an iPhone to find out what's inside



Image: University of Plymouth

You probably do not spend a lot of time thinking about what your smartphone is made of. But maybe you should do that because the average phone is a dizzying complex compendium of metals and minerals that come from all over the world.

Now a team of scientists from the University of Plymouth is attempting to demystify the list of ingredients in the hope of raising awareness of the environmental and human impacts of our devices. They do this in the most brutal way: grinding the phones and measuring the elements inside.

As a preliminary demonstration of their work, the video just released describes the chemical analysis of a team from an iPhone 4S. Arjan Dijkstra, a lecturer in magmatic petrology and one of the lead scientists behind the project, told Earther that his team first detected at least 39 elements in the phone. They had discovered more, he said, "but wanted to concentrate only on the most common occurring," the demonstration. (Other experts told me earlier that an iPhone contains about 75 items, but Apple did not comment at the time.)

Decrypt the elements inside The phone begins with the highly scientific step of putting it in a blender. After the phone has been chopped into a mixture of fine dust and small pieces, the material is mixed in small pots with sodium peroxide and heated to 480 degrees Celsius. The sodium peroxide, explains Dijkstra, oxidizes all metals so that they can be dissolved in a weak nitric acid solution. The exact elemental composition of this solution is then analyzed with an optical emission spectrometer.

The work has largely been used to verify what we have already understood about smartphones: they contain a lot Lot . The elements of a phone range from well-known materials such as carbon and iron (both in the steel case of the iPhone 4S, which were later replaced by aluminum). They also contain a few exotic ingredients, often referred to as "rare" or "critical" metals: tungsten, cobalt, molybdenum, and the rare earth metals dysprosium, neodymium, praseodymium, and gadolinium, to name a few.

These are just a few metals mined each year in small quantities, but they are absolutely essential for the functioning of modern technologies.

Image: University of Plymouth

Many of the items that iPhone's analysis has revealed are published in Apple's latest environmental data A report in which he details his efforts to reduce the use of degraded metals by tightening describes its recycling programs while others do not. Most of the rare metals are recycled today at very low recycling rates. This is regrettable because mining is often associated with significant environmental impact. Without adequate oversight, this can also lead to serious human rights violations. For example, cobalt mining, which mainly occurs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is linked to the rampant use of child labor. In the same war-torn region, the mining of tin, tungsten and tantalum can lead to armed conflict.

Greater transparency about the content of our devices can help raise awareness of these implications. For example, by quantifying the most abundant metals in the 4S, the researchers estimated that about 10 to 15 kilos of rock had to be extracted from the earth to make the 5 ounce unit.

"We hope they can do it [consumers] can now look at their phone in a different light, not only as a high-tech device, but also as an object made from raw materials that are mined," he said Dijkstra in an e-mail to Earther. "Every new phone leaves a whole of 10 to 15 kg of rock in the ground – in fact, it's a whole series of small holes around the world. That is, unless it is made of recycled materials.

Perhaps this demonstration will encourage Apple to accelerate its recycling efforts. In the meantime, the team is analyzing more phones, with particular focus on how the rare earths – their degradation leads to a high proportion of by-products of toxic waste – and elements such as cobalt and tantalum, which are known for conflict, are changing.

They rely on volunteers to deliver the old phones. So if you have one that you wanted to throw in the bin, you can use it much better now.


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