TED-Ed Video Lesson Transcript:
As of 2018, there are around 25 billion smartphone users in the world.
If we broke open all their newest phones, which are just a fraction of the total that’ve been built, and split them into their component parts, that would produce around 85,000 kilograms of gold, 875,000 of silver, and 40 million kilograms of copper.
How did this precious cache get into our phones, and can we reclaim it?
Gold, silver, and copper are actually just a few of the 70 or so chemical elements that make up the average smartphone.
These can be divided into different groups, two of the most critical being rare earth elements and precious metals.
Rare earth elements
Rare earths are a selection of 17 elements that are actually common in Earth’s crust and are found in many areas across the world in low concentrations. These elements have a huge range of magnetic, phosphorescent, and conductive properties that make them crucial to modern technologies.
In fact, of the 17 types of rare earth metals, phones and other electronics may contain up to 16. In smartphones, these create the screen and color display, aid conductivity, and produce the signature vibrations, amongst other things.
And yet, crucial as they are, extracting these elements from the earth is linked to some disturbing environmental impacts.
Rare earth elements can often be found, but in many areas, it’s not economically feasible to extract them due to low concentrations. Much of the time, extracting them requires a method called open pit mining that exposes vast areas of land.