The Metals Inside Your iPhone Are More Valuable Than You Thought: Here's Why

The Metals Inside Your iPhone Are More Valuable Than You Thought: Here’s Why

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

If you are reading this article on a phone (or tablet or laptop), you are holding important pieces of the earth’s crust in your hands, which have been unearthed in mines around the world.

The iPhone, for example, contains around 30 chemical elements, spanning well-known metals like aluminum, copper, lithium, silver, and yes, even gold. But this is only the beginning. There’s also a range of dark metals known as rare earth elements, prized for their far-reaching renewable energy and technology applications, hidden inside your iPhone.

Many people around the world use Rare Earth Elements, or REE, on a daily basis without even knowing it, as they are hidden in common personal electronic devices. If you’re using an iPhone, an REE called lanthanum helps ensure the screen has a vibrant color, while neodymium and dysprosium are credited with helping the device vibrate, among other uses. In electric cars, the magnets, which are 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 electronics, may run out as the world transitions to a greener economy. A shortage of these irreplaceable metals, which are a key piece of the puzzle for accelerating the green shift, could derail the climate goals of preventing global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100a turning point for the damage that global warming is causing on our planet.

Researchers have sounded the alarm over smartphones for contributing to element depletion, even though they’re found in a whole range of electronics.

“We focused on the smartphone because almost everyone has one and they create major problems leading to waste and item depletion.” said David Cole-Hamilton, Vice President of EuChemS and Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of St. Andrews.

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A statement from the European Chemical Society in 2022 said 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 coming years.

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

The high carbon cost of producing phones

Despite the unsustainable supply of raw materials, many iPhones are sold every day – and the appeal of Apple’s iconic product is by no means diminishing. iPhone just had its most successful September quarter ever, generating $42.6 billion in revenue, nearly half of Apple’s overall quarterly revenue of $90.1 billion .

These robust sales have come despite each of Apple’s recent phone lineups, the iPhone 14 and iPhone 13, receiving minimal technical upgrades. According to CNET editor Patrick Holland, the iPhone 14 represents “one of the most minimal year-over-year upgrades in Apple history.” However, these sales figures could also have been boosted by simply upgrading 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 as well as the associated carbon emissions released into the environment. ‘atmosphere.

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


Long before iPhones roll off the assembly lines in Zhengzhou, minerals are mined from earth around the world, the very first stage in an iPhone’s life. It is the only rare earth mineral 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 most of its carbon emissions early in its life cycle: the manufacturing stage. Take the iPhone 14 Pro, for example. Apple claims that it emits 65 to 116 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the life cycle of the iPhone produced. Of this total, 81% or 53-94 kg of carbon dioxide is emitted during the production process, which Apple says includes the extraction, production and transport of raw materials, as well as the manufacturing, transportation and assembly of all parts and product packaging.

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

This is not specific to the iPhone. Google’s flagship Pixel 7 phone produces around 84% of the phone’s carbon emissions during the manufacturing stage of its life cycle. As environmental advocacy group Greenpeace points out, “Various analyzes of life reveal that device manufacturing is by far the most carbon-intensive phase of smartphones.”

“Because 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 extending its expected lifespan,” Deloitte wrote in a 2021 report.


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

Apple/Sareena Dayaram screenshot

Rare earth minerals: technically abundant, actually rare

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

In smartphones, REEs tend to be only a fraction of the mass of the device, but rare earth mining is a massive and lucrative global business. That’s partly because of the global ubiquity of high-tech devices like smartphones, which require the conductive and magnetic properties of minerals to help them function at the cutting edge of technology. Statista estimates that the number of smartphone subscriptions worldwide has exceeded 6 billion, and that 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 neodymium, a rare earth metal, is in an alloy with iron used to make very strong permanent magnets. This makes it possible to miniaturize 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 borders 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 without a drastic increase in the supply of rare earths as well as other so-called “green” metals ( such as lithium, copper, and cobalt). These metals, used in smartphones and other consumer electronics, are vital for technologies that are expected to play a key role in tackling the climate crisis, such as electric vehicles, wind turbines and other elements needed for an energy transition. own. Demand for these items is increasing as countries around the world switch to green energy to help meet climate goals, the report says.

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

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


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

Jay Greene/CNET

Despite this range of issues, the majority of materials used to make smartphones are not recycled at the end of a smartphone’s life, even with take-back programs in place by companies like Apple. Through recycling e-waste, green metals used in consumer electronics such as phones can be recovered once the products reach their end of life, experts say.

“We propose that people keep their phone longer (reduce demand), have their phone repaired if it breaks (repair), give the phone to someone else if they have to buy a new one (reuse) and then turn it over to a company that does ethical recycling once they can’t really be used (recycled) anymore,” Cole-Hamilton said.

“That way we can have a circular economy of phones.”

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