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Visualizing the Critical Metals in a Smartphone

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A Breakdown of the Critical Metals in a Smartphone

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 PartCritical Metal
Touch Screen indium
Displaylanthanum; gadolinium; praseodymium; europium; terbium; dysprosium
Electronicsnickel, gallium, tantalum
Casingnickel, magnesium
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.

2. Display

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.

3. Electronics

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.

5. Casing

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.

6. Battery

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.

What’s Next?

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.

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Misc

Mapped: U.S. Mineral Production, by State

This infographic breaks down $90.4 billion in non-fuel mineral production by state.

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mineral production

Mapped: U.S. Non-fuel Mineral Production, by State

Just how many minerals does the U.S. consume? In 2020, non-fuel mineral consumption worked out to around 19,000 pounds or 8.6 tonnes per person.

This includes metals like copper, iron ore, and zinc, along with construction sand, stone, cement, and other industrial minerals. With such high demand, changes in the production of these commodities often reflect how the overall economy is performing.

The above infographic maps U.S. non-fuel mineral production by state in 2021 using data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

The Most Valuable Minerals

As the U.S. economy restarted in 2021, American mines generated over $90 billion in non-fuel mineral production, a 12% increase from 2020.

Before diving into the breakdown by state, here’s a look at production value by mineral type:

CategoryProduction value% of Total
Metals$33.8B37.4%
Construction aggregates$29.2B32.3%
Industrial minerals (excl. construction)$27.4B30.3%
Total$90.4B100%

Each of the categories accounted for roughly one-third of the total production value, with metals making up the largest share. Within metals, copper and gold collectively accounted for 66% of the total, followed by iron ore (13%) and zinc (7%).

The production of sand, gravel, and crushed stone—important inputs for construction—also made up a significant chunk of the value, along with other industrial minerals. Furthermore, crushed stone was the leading non-fuel mineral in 2021, with $19.3 billion in production value.

Which States Lead in Mineral Production?

Arizona, Nevada, Texas, California, and Minnesota—the top five states—accounted for nearly 40% of non-fuel mineral production value.

StateValue of Non-fuel Mineral Production% of Total
Arizona$10B11.0%
Nevada$9.4B10.3%
Texas$5.8B6.4%
California$5.3B5.8%
Minnesota$4.0B4.4%
Alaska$3.9B4.3%
Utah$3.8B4.1%
Missouri$3.3B3.7%
Michigan$3.0B3.3%
Wyoming$2.8B3.0%
Florida$2.4B2.7%
Georgia$2.0B2.3%
Montana$2.0B2.2%
Pennsylvania$2.0B2.2%
Alabama$1.9B2.1%
Colorado$1.6B1.8%
New York$1.6B1.7%
Tennessee$1.6B1.7%
Virginia$1.6B1.7%
North Caroline$1.5B1.6%
Ohio$1.4B1.5%
New Mexico$1.3B1.4%
Kansas$1.2B1.3%
Indiana$1.2B1.3%
Arkansas$1.0B1.1%
Wisconsin$1.0B1.1%
Illinois$1.0B1.1%
Iowa$0.96B1.1%
South Carolina$0.95B1.1%
Oklahoma$0.92B1.0%
Washington$0.73B0.8%
Idaho$0.72B0.8%
Louisiana$0.66B0.7%
Oregon$0.60B0.7%
Kentucky$0.59B0.6%
South Dakota$0.50B0.5%
Maryland$0.46B0.5%
New Jersey$0.40B0.4%
West Virginia$0.36B0.4%
Nebraska$0.22B0.2%
Massachusetts$0.21B0.2%
Mississippi$0.20B0.2%
Connecticut$0.18B0.2%
Hawaii$0.13B0.1%
Maine$0.13B0.1%
Vermont$0.11B0.1%
New Hampshire$0.095B0.1%
Rhode Island$0.066B0.07%
North Dakota$0.065B0.07%
Delaware$0.022B0.02%
Undistributed4.0B4.5%
Total$90.4B100.0%

Arizona and Nevada, the top two states, are the country’s biggest producers of copper and gold, respectively. Arizona also produced over $1 billion worth of construction sand and gravel in 2021, in addition to being the country’s leading producer of gemstones.

In third place was Texas, where mines produced nearly $6 billion worth of non-fuel minerals, of which 38% came from crushed stone. California, meanwhile, led in the production of construction sand and gravel, and was the country’s sole source of rare earth elements.

Minnesota also made the top five as the nation’s largest producer of iron ore. In fact, mines in Minnesota and Michigan shipped 98% of domestic usable iron ore products in 2021.

The Missing Critical Minerals

Although the U.S. is a major producer of non-fuel minerals, it still relies on imports for the supply of several minerals.

In 2021, the U.S. imported $5.3 billion worth of raw materials, in addition to $90 billion in net imports of processed mineral materials. Of the 50 minerals deemed critical to national security, the country was 100% net import reliant for 26, including graphite, manganese, and several rare earth metals.

To meet the rising demand for these minerals, U.S. President Biden announced major investments in domestic critical mineral production, including a $35 million grant to MP Materials for the processing of rare earths.

It remains to be seen whether these investments will pay off in building more resilient, end-to-end domestic critical mineral supply chains.

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Technology Metals

The 50 Minerals Critical to U.S. Security

This graphic lists all minerals that are deemed critical to both the economic and national security of the United States.

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The 50 Minerals Critical to U.S. Security

The U.S. aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 as part of its commitment to tackling climate change, but might be lacking the critical minerals needed to achieve its goals.

The American green economy will rely on renewable sources of energy like wind and solar, along with the electrification of transportation. However, local production of the raw materials necessary to produce these technologies, including solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles, is lacking. Understandably, this has raised concerns in Washington.

In this graphic, based on data from the U.S. Geological Survey, we list all of the minerals that the government has deemed critical to both the economic and national security of the United States.

What are Critical Minerals?

A critical mineral is defined as a non-fuel material considered vital for the economic well-being of the world’s major and emerging economies, whose supply may be at risk. This can be due to geological scarcity, geopolitical issues, trade policy, or other factors.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of the Interior released a list of 35 critical minerals. The new list, released in February 2022, contains 15 more commodities.

Much of the increase in the new list is the result of splitting the rare earth elements and platinum group elements into individual entries rather than including them as “mineral groups.” In addition, the 2022 list of critical minerals adds nickel and zinc to the list while removing helium, potash, rhenium, and strontium.

Mineral Example UsesNet Import Reliance
BerylliumAlloying agent in aerospace, defense industries 11%
AluminumPower lines, construction, electronics 13%
ZirconiumHigh-temparature ceramics production 25%
PalladiumCatalytic converters40%
GermaniumFiber optics, night vision applications50%
LithiumRechargeable batteries 50%
MagnesiumAlloys, electronics 50%
NickelStainless steel, rechargeable batteries 50%
TungstenWear-resistant metals50%
BariteHydrocarbon production75%
ChromiumStainless steel75%
TinCoatings, alloys for steel 75%
CobaltRechargeable batteries, superalloys76%
PlatinumCatalytic converters 79%
AntimonyLead-acid batteries, flame retardants 81%
ZincMetallurgy to produce galvanized steel 83%
TitaniumWhite pigment, metal alloys88%
BismuthMedical, atomic research 94%
TelluriumSolar cells, thermoelectric devices95%
VanadiumAlloying agent for iron and steel96%
ArsenicSemi-conductors, lumber preservatives, pesticides 100%
CeriumCatalytic converters, ceramics, glass, metallurgy100%
CesiumResearch, development100%
DysprosiumData storage devices, lasers100%
ErbiumFiber optics, optical amplifiers, lasers100%
EuropiumPhosphors, nuclear control rods 100%
FluorsparManufacture of aluminum, cement, steel, gasoline100%
GadoliniumMedical imaging, steelmaking100%
GalliumIntegrated circuits, LEDs100%
GraphiteLubricants, batteries100%
HolmiumPermanent magnets, nuclear control rods100%
IndiumLiquid crystal display screens 100%
LanthanumCatalysts, ceramics, glass, polishing compounds100%
LutetiumScintillators for medical imaging, cancer therapies 100%
ManganeseSteelmaking, batteries 100%
NeodymiumRubber catalysts, medical, industrial lasers 100%
NiobiumSteel, superalloys100%
PraseodymiumPermanent magnets, batteries, aerospace alloys100%
RubidiumResearch, development in electronics 100%
SamariumCancer treatment, absorber in nuclear reactors 100%
ScandiumAlloys, ceramics, fuel cells100%
TantalumElectronic components, superalloys100%
TerbiumPermanent magnets, fiber optics, lasers100%
ThuliumMetal alloys, lasers 100%
YtterbiumCatalysts, scintillometers, lasers, metallurgy 100%
YttriumCeramic, catalysts, lasers, metallurgy, phosphors 100%
IridiumCoating of anodes for electrochemical processesNo data available
RhodiumCatalytic converters, electrical componentsNo data available
RutheniumElectrical contacts, chip resistors in computersNo data available
HafniumNuclear control rods, alloysNet exporter

The challenge for the U.S. is that the local production of these raw materials is extremely limited.

For instance, in 2021 there was only one operating nickel mine in the country, the Eagle mine in Michigan. The facility ships its concentrates abroad for refining and is scheduled to close in 2025. Likewise, the country only hosted one lithium mine, the Silver Peak Mine in Nevada.

At the same time, most of the country’s supply of critical minerals depends on countries that have historically competed with America.

China’s Dominance in Minerals

Perhaps unsurprisingly, China is the single largest supply source of mineral commodities for the United States.

Cesium, a critical metal used in a wide range of manufacturing, is one example. There are only three pegmatite mines in the world that can produce cesium, and all were controlled by Chinese companies in 2021.

Furthermore, China refines nearly 90% of the world’s rare earths. Despite the name, these elements are abundant on the Earth’s crust and make up the majority of listed critical minerals. They are essential for a variety of products like EVs, advanced ceramics, computers, smartphones, wind turbines, monitors, and fiber optics.

After China, the next largest source of mineral commodities to the United States has been Canada, which provided the United States with 16 different elements in 2021.

The Rising Demand for Critical Minerals

As the world’s clean energy transitions gather pace, demand for critical minerals is expected to grow quickly.

According to the International Energy Association, the rise of low-carbon power generation is projected to triple mineral demand from this sector by 2040.

The shift to a sustainable economy is important, and consequently, securing the critical minerals necessary for it is just as vital.

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