These Scientists Ground an iPhone to Dust to Figure Out What's Inside

Image: University of Plymouth

You probably don’t spend a lot of time pondering what your smartphone is made of. But maybe you should, because the average phone is a dizzyingly complex compendium of metals and minerals sourced from all over the Earth.

Now, a team of scientists at the University of Plymouth is attempting to demystify the ingredient list, in the hopes of raising awareness of the environmental and human impact of our devices. They’re doing so in the most brute-force way possible: grinding up phones and measuring the elements inside.

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As a preliminary demonstration of their work, the just-released video below details the team’s chemical analysis of an iPhone 4S. Arjan Dijkstra, a lecturer in igneous petrology and one of the lead scientists behind the project, told Earther that his team initially detected at least 39 elements in the phone. They would have detected more, he said, but “just wanted to focus on the most abundant ones,” for the purposes of the demonstration. (Other experts previously told me that an iPhone contains about 75 elements. Apple didn’t comment at the time.)

Deciphering the elements inside the phone begins with the highly scientific step of dropping it in a blender. After the phone has been chopped up into a mix of fine dust and small chunks, the material is mixed with sodium peroxide in small crucibles and heated to 480 degrees Celsius. The sodium peroxide, Dijkstra explained, oxidizes all of the metals so that they can then be dissolved in a weak nitric acid solution. That solution’s precise elemental composition is then analyzed using an optical emission spectrometer.

The work has, so far, largely served to verify what we already understood about smartphones: They contain a lot of ingredients. The elements in a phone range from familiar stuff like carbon and iron (both found in the steel body of the iPhone 4S, which later models replaced with aluminum). They also contain a smattering of more exotic ingredients often described as “rare” or “critical” metals: tungsten, cobalt, molybdenum, and the rare earth metals dysprosium, neodymium, praseodymium and gadolinium, to name just a few.

These metals are only mined in small quantities each year, but they’re absolutely essential to the functioning of modern technology.

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Image: University of Plymouth

Many of the elements the iPhone analysis turned up are disclosed on Apple’s most recent environmental report—which details its efforts to reduce the use of mined metals by beefing up its recycling programs—while others aren’t. Most of the rare metals are recycled at very low rates today, which is unfortunate because mining them often takes a severe environmental toll. If done without appropriate oversight, it can also lead to serious human rights abuses. For instance, cobalt mining, which occurs primarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been tied to the rampant use of child labor. In the same war-torn region, mining tin, tungsten, and tantalum can fuel armed conflicts.

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More transparency about what our devices contain can help raise awareness about these impacts. For instance, by quantifying the most abundant metals in the 4S, the researchers were able to estimate that production of the 5-oz device requires about 10 to 15 kilograms of rock to be mined from the Earth.

“We hope that they [consumers] can now look at their phone in a different light, not just as a high-tech gadget, but also as an item that is manufactured from raw materials, that are mined,” Dijkstra told Earther in an email. “So every new phone leaves a whole in the ground the size of 10-15 kg of rock—in fact it is a whole series of little holes all around the world. That is, unless it is made from recycled materials.”

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Perhaps this demonstration will encourage Apple to expedite its recycling efforts. In the meantime, the team is in the process of analyzing more phones, with a particular eye toward how levels of rare earths—the mining of which produces high levels of toxic waste byproducts—and elements like cobalt and tantalum notorious for fueling conflict, are changing.

They’re relying on volunteers to supply the old phones, so if you’ve got one you were thinking of chucking in the trash, now you can put it to much better use.

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About the author

Maddie Stone

Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.