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.
How Is Aluminum Made?
Aluminum is one of the world’s most widely used metals, but producing it is a complex process. Here’s a look at where it comes from.
How is Aluminum Made?
Aluminum is one of our most widely-used metals, found in everything from beer cans to airplane parts.
However, the lightweight metal doesn’t occur naturally, and producing it is a complex process.
The Three Stages of Aluminum Production
Each year, the world produces around 390 million tonnes of bauxite rock, and 85% of it is used to make aluminum.
Bauxites are rocks composed of aluminum oxides along with other minerals and are the world’s primary source of aluminum. After mining, bauxite is refined into alumina, which is then converted into aluminum.
Therefore, aluminum typically goes from ore to metal in three stages.
Stage 1: Mining Bauxite
Bauxite is typically extracted from the ground in open-pit mines, with just three countries—Australia, China, and Guinea—accounting for 72% of global mine production.
|Country||2021 Mine Production of Bauxite (tonnes)||% of Total|
|Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦||4,300,000||1.1%|
|Rest of the World 🌍||15,500,000||4.0%|
Australia is by far the largest bauxite producer, and it’s also home to the Weipa Mine, the biggest bauxite mining operation globally.
Guinea, the third-largest producer, is endowed with more than seven billion tonnes of bauxite reserves, more than any other country. Additionally, Guinea is the top exporter of bauxite globally, with 76% of its bauxite exports going to China.
After bauxite is out of the ground, it is sent to refineries across the globe to make alumina, marking the second stage of the production process.
Stage 2: Alumina Production
In the 1890s, Austrian chemist Carl Josef Bayer invented a revolutionary process for extracting alumina from bauxite. Today—over 100 years later—some 90% of alumina refineries still use the Bayer process to refine bauxite.
Here are the four key steps in the Bayer process:
Bauxite is mixed with sodium hydroxide and heated under pressure. At this stage, the sodium hydroxide selectively dissolves aluminum oxide from the bauxite, leaving behind other minerals as impurities.
Impurities are separated and filtered from the solution, forming a residue known as red mud. After discarding the mud, aluminum oxide is converted into sodium aluminate.
The sodium aluminate solution is cooled and precipitated into a solid, crystallized form of aluminum hydroxide.
The aluminum hydroxide crystals are washed and heated in calciners to form pure aluminum oxide—a sandy white material known as alumina.
The impurities or red mud left behind in the alumina production process is a major environmental concern. In fact, for every tonne of alumina, refineries produce 1.2 tonnes of red mud, and there are over three billion tonnes of it stored in the world today.
China, the second-largest producer and largest importer of bauxite, supplies more than half of the world’s alumina.
|Country||2021 alumina production (tonnes)||% of total|
|Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦||1,800,000||1%|
|Rest of the World 🌍||15,100,000||11%|
Several major producers of bauxite, including Australia, Brazil, and India, are among the largest alumina producers, although none come close to China.
Alumina has applications in multiple industries, including plastics, cosmetics, and chemical production. But of course, the majority of it is shipped to smelters to make aluminum.
Stage 3: Aluminum Production
Alumina is converted into aluminum through electrolytic reduction. Besides alumina itself, another mineral called cryolite is key to the process, along with loads of electricity. Here’s a simplified overview of how aluminum smelting works:
- In aluminum smelter facilities, hundreds of electrolytic reduction cells are filled up with molten cryolite.
- Alumina (composed of two aluminum atoms and three oxygen atoms) is then dumped into these cells, and a strong electric current breaks the chemical bond between aluminum and oxygen atoms.
- The electrolysis results in pure liquid aluminum settling at the bottom of the cell, which is then purified and cast into its various shapes and sizes.
China dominates global aluminum production and is also the largest consumer. Its neighbor India is the second-largest producer, making only a tenth of China’s output.
|Country||2021 Aluminum Smelter Production (tonnes)||% of total|
|United Arab Emirates 🇦🇪||2,600,000||4%|
|Rest of the World 🌍||9,400,000||14%|
As is the case for alumina production, some of the countries that produce bauxite and alumina also produce aluminum, such as India, Australia, and Russia.
Roughly a quarter of annually produced aluminum is used by the construction industry. Another 23% goes into vehicle frames, wires, wheels, and other parts of the transportation industry. Aluminum foil, cans, and packaging also make up another major end-use with a 17% consumption share.
Aluminum’s widespread applications have made it one of the most valuable metal markets. In 2021, the global aluminum market was valued at around $245.7 billion, and as consumption grows, it’s projected to nearly double in size to $498.5 billion by 2030.
How Strong Are Rare Earth Magnets?
Rare earth magnets are the most powerful magnets in the world. How does their strength compare with other common magnets?
How Strong Are Rare Earth Magnets?
Magnets are an integral part of many technologies and appliances in the 21st century.
From tiny fridge magnets that hold to-do lists to powerful ones that create magnetic fields for electricity generation from wind turbines, there are many different types of magnets.
The world’s strongest magnets, also known as rare earth magnets, are made by alloying certain rare earth elements with other materials.
But just how strong are rare earth magnets, and what makes them so powerful?
Measuring Magnet Strength
The above infographic uses data from First4Magnets to compare the strength of magnets. But before looking at the strongest magnets, it’s essential to understand how to measure magnetic strength.
The maximum energy product, measured in mega-gauss-oersteds (MGOe), is one of the primary indicators of magnetic strength. It is a multiplication of two measurements: a magnet’s remanence and its coercivity.
To become magnets, ferromagnetic substances need to enter the magnetic field of an existing magnet. Remanence, measured in Gauss, is the magnetism left in the magnet after removing the external magnetic field.
Coercivity is the energy required to bring a magnetic material’s magnetism down to zero. Measured in oersteds, it essentially captures the magnetic material’s resistance to demagnetization.
The Strength of Rare Earth Magnets
Each magnet has a grade, which typically denotes its strength. For example, a neodymium magnet of grade N42 has a strength of 42MGOe.
To put the power of two common rare earth magnet grades into perspective, here’s how their strength compares with common grades of other permanent magnets:
|Magnet (Grade)||Composition||Maximum Energy Product (MGOe)|
|Neodymium (N42)||Neodymium, iron, boron||42|
|Samarium Cobalt (SmCo 2:17)||Samarium, cobalt||28|
|Alnico (Alnico-5)||Iron, aluminum, nickel, cobalt||5.5|
|Ferrite (Ferrite-8)||Ceramics, iron oxide||3.5|
|Magnetic rubber (Grade Y)||Strontium or barium, synthetic rubber, PVC||0.8|
Note: While the N42 neodymium magnet is used more commonly, the strongest available magnet is of grade N52.
Neodymium and samarium—two of the 17 rare earth elements—are ferromagnetic, meaning that they have inherent magnetic properties and can be magnetized. These metals are first mined, refined, and then combined with materials like iron, boron, and/or cobalt to make the strongest magnetic alloys.
Neodymium magnets are typically composed of one-third neodymium, along with iron and boron. Some of the neodymium in magnets can be replaced with praseodymium, another rare earth material. For this reason, neodymium magnets are also known as NdPr magnets.
Due to their strength, neodymium magnets have found their way into various technologies, from phones and laptops to motors in electric vehicles. In fact, according to Adamas Intelligence, 90% of all EV motors use NdPr magnets. Because these magnets also offer relatively high strength for a smaller size, they are also the predominant choice for wind turbines, reducing turbine weight significantly.
Samarium-cobalt magnets exhibit exceptional resistance to extreme temperatures. These magnets can operate from temperatures as low as -270℃ up to 350℃ and are also highly resistant to corrosion. Consequently, they have important applications in harsh marine environments and technologies with high operating temperatures.
The Demand for Neodymium Magnets
Global EV sales more than doubled last year, up from around 3 million cars in 2020 to 6.6 million in 2021. Similarly, renewable energy is expanding at a record pace, with capacity installations in 2022 set to break the record set the previous year.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the demand for rare earth magnets is expected to increase. Neodymium magnet consumption is forecasted to grow from more than 100,000 tonnes in 2020 to 300,000 tonnes by 2035, with EVs and wind turbines driving growth.
However, the supply chain of neodymium magnets remains a concern with China controlling the majority of rare earth extraction, refining, and downstream magnet production.
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