Visualizing the Critical Metals in a Smartphone
In an increasingly connected world, smartphones have become an inseparable part of our lives.
Over 60% of the world’s population owns a mobile phone and smartphone adoption continues to rise in developing countries around the world.
While each brand has its own mix of components, whether it’s a Samsung or an iPhone, most smartphones can carry roughly 80% of the stable elements on the periodic table.
But some of the vital metals to build these devices are considered at risk due to geological scarcity, geopolitical issues, and other factors.
|Smartphone Part||Critical Metal|
|Display||lanthanum; gadolinium; praseodymium; europium; terbium; dysprosium|
|Electronics||nickel, gallium, tantalum|
|Battery||lithium, nickel, cobalt|
|Microphone, speakers, vibration unit||nickel, praseodymium, neodymium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium|
What’s in Your Pocket?
This infographic based on data from the University of Birmingham details all the critical metals that you carry in your pocket with your smartphone.
1. Touch Screen
Screens are made up of multiple layers of glass and plastic, coated with a conductor material called indium which is highly conductive and transparent.
Indium responds when contacted by another electrical conductor, like our fingers.
When we touch the screen, an electric circuit is completed where the finger makes contact with the screen, changing the electrical charge at this location. The device registers this electrical charge as a “touch event”, then prompting a response.
Smartphones screens display images on a liquid crystal display (LCD). Just like in most TVs and computer monitors, a phone LCD uses an electrical current to adjust the color of each pixel.
Several rare earth elements are used to produce the colors on screen.
Smartphones employ multiple antenna systems, such as Bluetooth, GPS, and WiFi.
The distance between these antenna systems is usually small making it extremely difficult to achieve flawless performance. Capacitors made of the rare, hard, blue-gray metal tantalum are used for filtering and frequency tuning.
Nickel is also used in capacitors and in mobile phone electrical connections. Another silvery metal, gallium, is used in semiconductors.
4. Microphone, Speakers, Vibration Unit
Nickel is used in the microphone diaphragm (that vibrates in response to sound waves).
Alloys containing rare earths neodymium, praseodymium and gadolinium are used in the magnets contained in the speaker and microphone. Neodymium, terbium and dysprosium are also used in the vibration unit.
There are many materials used to make phone cases, such as plastic, aluminum, carbon fiber, and even gold. Commonly, the cases have nickel to reduce electromagnetic interference (EMI) and magnesium alloys for EMI shielding.
Unless you bought your smartphone a decade ago, your device most likely carries a lithium-ion battery, which is charged and discharged by lithium ions moving between the negative (anode) and positive (cathode) electrodes.
Smartphones will naturally evolve as consumers look for ever-more useful features. Foldable phones, 5G technology with higher download speeds, and extra cameras are just a few of the changes expected.
As technology continues to improve, so will the demand for the metals necessary for the next generation of smartphones.
This post was originally featured on Elements
Ranked: The World’s Top 10 Electronics Exporters (2000-2021)
Here are the largest electronics exporters by country, highlighting how electronics trade has increasingly shifted to Asia over 20 years.
Top 10 Electronics Exporters in the World (2000-2021)
From personal computers to memory chips, the electronics trade plays a vital role in the world economy. In 2021, global electronics exports reached $4.1 trillion according to McKinsey Global Institute.
This graphic shows the 10 largest electronics exporters in the world, based on data from McKinsey, and how they’ve changed since 2000.
Ranked: The Top 10 Exporters of Electronics
Which countries are the leading exporters of electronics, and how has this shifted over the last two decades?
|Rank||Country||Share of Total 2021||Share of Total 2000|
|3||🇰🇷 South Korea||7%||5%|
|7||🇺🇸 United States||4%||16%|
We can see in the above table how global electronics trade has become more concentrated in Asia, specifically China and Taiwan. As an electronics powerhouse, 34% of the world’s electronic goods in 2021 came from China, representing $1.4 trillion in value.
Home to leading firms like TSMC, Taiwan also plays a major role due to its prowess in semiconductor manufacturing—highlighting the island’s global importance.
But not all of Asia has been thriving. In 2000, Japan was a global electronics powerhouse responsible for 13% of the industry’s exports, but has seen its share shrink to 4% in 2021. The U.S. has also sheen its electronics lead shrink, with exports down from 16% of the global total in 2000 to just 4% in 2021.
Several factors have driven this shift. Instead of manufacturing electronics domestically, the U.S. has outsourced technology to countries where manufacturing, production, and labor costs are lower. However, recently, the U.S. is focusing on reshoring semiconductor production specifically given its role in national security, as seen through the $52.7 billion CHIPS Act.
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