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.
The Critical Minerals to China, EU, and U.S. National Security
Ten materials, including cobalt, lithium, graphite, and rare earths, are deemed critical by all three.
The Critical Minerals to China, EU, and U.S. Security
Governments formulate lists of critical minerals according to their industrial requirements and strategic evaluations of supply risks.
Over the last decade, minerals like nickel, copper, and lithium have been on these lists and deemed essential for clean technologies like EV batteries and solar and wind power.
What are Critical Minerals?
There is no universally accepted definition of critical minerals. Countries and regions maintain lists that mirror current technology requirements and supply and demand dynamics, among other factors.
These lists are also constantly changing. For example, the EU’s first critical minerals list in 2011 featured only 14 raw materials. In contrast, the 2023 version identified 34 raw materials as critical.
One thing countries share, however, is the concern that a lack of minerals could slow down the energy transition.
With most countries committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the total mineral demand from clean energy technologies is expected to double by 2040.
U.S. and EU Seek to Reduce Import Reliance on Critical Minerals
Ten materials feature on critical material lists of both the U.S., the EU, and China, including cobalt, lithium, graphite, and rare earths.
|Mineral / Considered Critical||🇺🇸 U.S.||🇪🇺 EU||🇨🇳 China|
Despite having most of the same materials found in the U.S. or China’s list, the European list is the only one to include phosphate rock. The region has limited phosphate resources (only produced in Finland) and largely depends on imports of the material essential for manufacturing fertilizers.
Coking coal is also only on the EU list. The material is used in the manufacture of pig iron and steel. Production is currently dominated by China (58%), followed by Australia (17%), Russia (7%), and the U.S. (7%).
The U.S. has also sought to reduce its reliance on imports. Today, the country is 100% import-dependent on manganese and graphite and 76% on cobalt.
After decades of sourcing materials from other countries, the U.S. local production of raw materials has become extremely limited. For instance, there is only one operating nickel mine (primary) in the country, the Eagle Mine in Michigan. Likewise, the country only hosts one lithium source in Nevada, the Silver Peak Mine.
Despite being the world’s biggest carbon polluter, China is the largest producer of most of the world’s critical minerals for the green revolution.
China produces 60% of all rare earth elements used as components in high-technology devices, including smartphones and computers. The country also has a 13% share of the lithium production market. In addition, it refines around 35% of the world’s nickel, 58% of lithium, and 70% of cobalt.
Among some of the unique materials on China’s list is gold. Although gold is used on a smaller scale in technology, China has sought gold for economic and geopolitical factors, mainly to diversify its foreign exchange reserves, which rely heavily on the U.S. dollar.
Analysts estimate China has bought a record 400 tonnes of gold in recent years.
China has also slated uranium as a critical mineral. The Chinese government has stated it intends to become self-sufficient in nuclear power plant capacity and fuel production for those plants.
According to the World Nuclear Association, China aims to produce one-third of its uranium domestically.
Charted: America’s Import Reliance of Critical Minerals
The U.S. is heavily reliant on imports for many critical minerals. How import-dependent is the U.S. for each one, and on which country?
Charting America’s Import Reliance of Key Minerals
The push towards a more sustainable future requires various key minerals to build the infrastructure of the green economy. However, the U.S. is heavily reliant on nonfuel mineral imports causing potential vulnerabilities in the nation’s supply chains.
Specifically, the U.S. is 100% reliant on imports for at least 12 key minerals deemed critical by the government, with China being the primary import source for many of these along with many other critical minerals.
This graphic uses data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to visualize America’s import dependence for 30 different key nonfuel minerals along with the nation that the U.S. primarily imports each mineral from.
U.S. Import Reliance, by Mineral
While the U.S. mines and processes a significant amount of minerals domestically, in 2022 imports still accounted for more than half of the country’s consumption of 51 nonfuel minerals. The USGS calculates a net import reliance as a percentage of apparent consumption, showing how much of U.S. demand for each mineral is met through imports.
Of the most important minerals deemed by the USGS, the U.S. was 95% or more reliant on imports for 13 different minerals, with China being the primary import source for more than half of these.
|Mineral||Net Import Reliance as Percentage of Consumption||Primary Import Source (2018-2021)|
|Graphite (natural)||100%||🇨🇳 China|
|Indium||100%||🇰🇷 Republic of Korea|
|Rare Earths (compounds and metals)||95%||🇨🇳 China|
|Titanium (metal)||95%||🇯🇵 Japan|
|Chromium||83%||🇿🇦 South Africa|
|Aluminum (bauxite)||75%||🇯🇲 Jamaica|
|Platinum||66%||🇿🇦 South Africa|
|Zirconium||50%||🇿🇦 South Africa|
These include rare earths (a group of 17 nearly indistinguishable heavy metals with similar properties) which are essential in technology, high-powered magnets, electronics, and industry, along with natural graphite which is found in lithium-ion batteries.
These are all on the U.S. government’s critical mineral list which has a total of 50 minerals, and the U.S. is 50% or more import reliant for 43 of these minerals.
Some other minerals on the official list which the U.S. is 100% reliant on imports for are arsenic, fluorspar, indium, manganese, niobium, and tantalum, which are used in a variety of applications like the production of alloys and semiconductors along with the manufacturing of electronic components like LCD screens and capacitors.
China’s Gallium and Germanium Restrictions
America’s dependence on imports for various minerals has resulted in a new challenge resulting from China’s announced export restrictions on gallium and germanium that took effect August 1st, 2023. The U.S. is 100% import dependent for gallium and 50% import dependent for germanium.
These restrictions are seen as a retaliation against U.S. and EU sanctions on China which have restricted the export of chips and chipmaking equipment.
Both gallium and germanium are used in the production of transistors and semiconductors along with solar panels and cells, and these export restrictions present an additional hurdle for critical U.S. supply chains of various technologies that include LED lights and fiber-optic systems used for high-speed data transmission.
The restrictions also affect the European Union, which imports 71% of its gallium and 45% of its germanium from China. It’s another stark reminder to the world of China’s dominance in the production and processing of many key minerals.
The announcement of these restrictions has only highlighted the importance for the U.S. and other nations to reduce import dependence and diversify supply chains of key minerals and technologies.
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