The Metals In Your Phone Aren't Just Rare; They're Irreplaceable

Illustration for article titled The Metals In Your Phone Aren't Just Rare; They're Irreplaceable

It takes a lot of different materials to make a modern day phone, and a fair number of them are of the rare earth metal variety. But a new study by researchers at Yale shows that there's another troubling detail about the supply of pre-phone components. Many of these metals aren't just rare; they're irreplaceable.


The study, conducted by researchers from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), indexed 62 of the metals and metalloids that are crucial to building smartphones as we know them today and rated their possible replacements on a scale of "excellent" to "poor" based on existing studies, interviews with designers, and the like. Their findings? Not a single metallic ingredient in phones today has a substitute that could be called "just as good," and 12 have substitutes that are only as good as "poor." In other words: no real, effective substitute at all.

Illustration for article titled The Metals In Your Phone Aren't Just Rare; They're Irreplaceable

Research scientist at F&ES and co-author of the study Barbara Reck put it this way:

Based on our findings, it is unlikely that substitution alone can solve potential supply restrictions for any of the metals on the periodic table.

And that's cause for at least a little bit of concern. Take dysprosium, as just one example. Atomic number 66, substitute rating as poor as they get. Not only is it running low (with shortages predicted to get problematic by 2020-ish) but its unique magnetic powers are also key in burgeoning green technologies like electric vehicles and wind turbines, in addition to in your smartphone. And it's bad enough that it's rare, but with no viable substitute in sight, you've got double the problem.

That's just for starters. The study also found there's a lack of suitable replacements for even more common materials like copper and lead, so be glad those are a little easier to come by.


Of course with this knowledge, at least we (or rather, the people who harvest these materials and make phones and whatnot) can proceed with caution and try to stretch out our supply as long as possible through wise use and recycling. But so long as there's no "next step" after we've run out of the good stuff, there's only so much to be done to get ready. Well, except maybe to brace ourselves. [Yale via Ars Technica]



One thing that's been on my mind for a while: Unless we're sending smartphone parts into the sun, they're not being lost no matter what. Japan already has 'urban mining' of landfills. In one sense, you can think of a landfill as an unorganized storage area (which I love but my girlfriend hates). Essentially, if recycling is "lossy," in that some material can't be recovered, but you think the technology to make it more efficient will be there in the future, there's an argument to USING properly constructed landfills as a long-term storage area until technology and economics change enough that we get the most we can out of all materials.

Has anyone done any work into 'organized landfills,' e.g. keeping high-tech parts (even if it's a mix of phones and CRTs and mainframes and switches) segregated in its own area? (and ditto for say, paper, etc.?) That could make the whole process easier and cheaper in the future without adding too much to current costs.