What elements go into our smartphones?
Technology is used in everyday of our lives, whether it is a laptop, tablet, or even a phone, technology has become almost an essential of everyones lives. It allows you to navigate through a new area with the in built map, it allows you to connect with friends, and family abroad with the simple tap of a button. These are just 2 of the many benefits of having electronics in your life, but with these positives also come negatives but many people don’t realise them as they are to caught up in having to get the latest model of an electronic. Many of these issues do not impact the consumer, but they impact the origin of the production line as people are being forced to work in these mines with appalling working conditions. These working conditions may mean being forced to work in the mines 24/7 without any breaks, not being payed a fair amount, and also when another rebel group, or the military comes to take over the mines, the miners are forced to fight. For my project, I decided to research what goes into our Iphones, because they are transportable, and they have many useful features which can keep you safe.
Who develops the Iphone?
The Iphone is a piece of technology that some people would consider an essential in modern day life. It allows people to navigate through new places, communicate with other people easily, entertain themselves, and much, much more. The newest Iphone’s price starts at 769$, but this does not include the chargers you might have to but with it. The Iphone is developed by a company named Apple, which is one of the world’s leading companies in electronics. Apple have released around 10 different models of the Iphone, and whenever a new one comes out, consumers feel the need to go and buy it even though they might already have a phone which is perfectly fine. This is a serious issue because although Apple don’t use conflict minerals connected to rebel groups, it is still a waste of the elements that are inside the phone as they are rare, valuable, and they can take a lot of manual labour to collect.
So what exactly goes into our phones?
Our Iphones are made up of many different elements, but some of the main ones that I researched were: tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold. All of these elements and more make up what allows your phone to function correctly and safely. Along with the elements that make up your phone, there are also compounds which help your phone function as it should. Two of these compounds that I decided to look into are Indium Tin Oxide, and aluminosilicate glass. These two compounds help make up the screen, and are crucial for a phone as the screen is what allows people to actually use the phone.
What are these compunds made up of, and what are the compounds used for?
Indium Tin Oxide
- Indium tin oxide is a mix of indium oxide, and tin oxide, and it is used in the transparent screen at the front of the iPhone. The reason why it is used is because it conducts the electricity from the rest of the phone, allowing the screen to function as a touch screen. This is important because without the touch screen on your phone, you would not be able to use any of the gadgets downloaded on the phone.
- The glass which is used on the majority of smartphones, is aluminosilicate glass which is made up of off aluminium oxide, and silica. The glass also contains potassium ions which help strengthen the glass. This is what makes up the screen, and is what allows people to see what they are doing on the phone.
Where are these elements mined? Why, and how are they used?
Atomic number: 73
Melting point: 3,020 °C
Where is Tantalum found?
- The Congo possesses 80% of all the tantalum in the world, but they only mine a small fraction of it due to rebel groups who take over the mines. Even though Congo possesses most of the world’s coltan (tantalum ore), they are the world’s third largest producer/exporter of tantalum after Mozambique and Brazil.
What does Tantalum do inside your phone, and why is it used?
- Tantalum stores electricity in your phone, without it your phone would die, and go silent. Tantalum is used because when it is refined it becomes a heat resistant powder that can hold a high electric charge. It’s a vital component in a large amount of small electronic devices, especially in mobile phones, laptops, and other electronic devices.
Atomic number: 50
Melting point: 231.9 °C
Where is Tin found?
- Tin is mainly produced in China, Indonesia, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil, but it is often shipped to wealthier companies where the element is either not available, or it is extremely rare. The reason why it is shipped is because Tin is extremely cheap where it is collected as it is quite common, but when it is transported, it gains value as it becomes rarer.
What does Tin do inside your phone, and why is it used?
- Tin is used as a solder for circuit boards because it is cheap, and affordable, and it also has a low melting point in comparison to other metals. The reason why the low melting point is useful is because you can melt it easily, and whilst it is melted, you can combine two wires by putting them in the tin, so when it hardens, it continues on the circuit.
Atomic number: 74
Melting point: 3,422 °C
Where is Tungsten found?
- Tungsten is mined in China, Russia, Portugal, Austria and Bolivia. China is reported to have about 75% of the world’s tungsten supply, and is the world’s greatest producer of tungsten, with Russia, Canada, Austria, and Bolivia also in the category of top 5 tungsten producers.
What does Tungsten do inside your phone, and why is it used?
- Tungsten makes sure that your phone vibrates, and is useful for text messages and phone calls. It can also be used to connect the interconnecting copper layers, with the transistors. Tungsten is used because it is heavy, and it can be compacted into small area’s, and still have a great weight. This is useful because a phone needs to be compact so it can fit in people’s pockets, and this allows the phone to vibrate, while also leaving room for wiring.
Atomic number: 79
Melting point: 1,064 °C
Where is Gold found?
- Gold is produced mostly in China, United States, Russia, Australia, and South Africa. The reason why these countries are the main producers is because a lot of them are large countries which are some of the richest countries in the world meaning that the producers can sell the element for a lot more in these countries as the consumers have more than enough money to buy the gold. This is shown through the difference in the top ten gold mines, and the top 5 producers because the top 10 gold mines are in the following countries: Indonesia, Papa New Guinea, South Africa, Uzbekistan, Russia, Mongolia, Dominican Republic, Australia, and Ghana.
What does Gold do inside your phone, and why is it used?
- Gold is used in circuit boards and wiring because it has a low electrical resistance (it conducts electricity well) , and it doesn’t corrode like other metals. The reason why these chemical properties are important is because the wiring in your phone is often exposed to oxygen, and it needs to be able to continue on the circuit without corroding. Gold is also the most valuable metal in your phone.
What are the issues with using conflict minerals?
The following issues affect the majority of countries who have mines which contain the conflict minerals mentioned above. These countries tend to have no real sense of government or leader who has great power over the population. This allows for almost anything illegal to be ignored, as people aare not punished as much as they should be when they commit crimes.
Children are being forced by rebel groups to work in mines to gather the elements which are in our electronics. Also when the rebel group is under attack, the children are given guns, and are forced to go fight. This is wrong on so many levels because one iPhone could mean one child’s life, and when you are a child, you shouldn’t have to worry about being forced to go and fight with a gun.
Rebel groups are taking over these mines which contain extremely valuable ores which when are smelted, and refined, are used in our technology. This is a big issue for governments in these poor countries, as they have no real source of income, and also they have no control over what is going on in the mines.
The mines which contain the resources used in our phones tend to be ran by rebel groups who use the minerals from the mine as an income/source for weapons, and explosives. This can be really dangerous for the workers in the mines as there may be remaining explosives left in the mines, and also when the current rebel group is defeated by another, the workers may be harmed, tortured or even killed by the new rebel group as a sign of power and dominance.
The democratic republic of Congo is one of the mineral richest countries on the planet, yet Congo is still one of the poorest countries in the world. This is due to the rebel groups who use these resources to fund their military campaigns (they buy weapons and explosives instead of essentials for miners).
What can we, as consumers do to help?
As consumers, we hold the answer to solving these issues with people fighting over these conflict minerals, and people being forced to work under extreme conditions. We can stop this if we work together as a community, and stop buying electronics from companies that get their minerals from mines which are ran by rebel groups. This will help stop the fighting because companies will start to lose huge amounts of money, making them realise that they are doing something wrong. Once they realise what they are doing wrong, they will start to look at competing companies, and why they are doing so well, and then that is when they will realise that it’s not the product consumers don’t like, it’s the way that the minerals are collected.
Another solution is to spread the word with posters, and social media because people will notice what really is going on “behind the scenes”, and they will act against it, almost forcing these huge electronic companies to change their ways otherwise people won’t buy their products causing them to start to make a loss, and when a company is making a loss, they will either decide to shut down, or they will decide to make a change.
Connecting back to the first solution, we could also buy alternative electronics from companies which use conflict free minerals to create their electronics because although they may be smaller companies with worser quality electronics, but the way they will improve is by using money, because when a company has more money, they can improve their products, but the money has to come from the consumer because of no one is buying the product, the developer see’s no use in improving their product as it is not popular, and it will just put them further in debt.
All in all, these solutions all relate to the same issue that we need to solve as consumers because if a company is making large amounts of profit, a lot of the time, the owner won’t want to change anything because it may have a negative effect on the amount of people buying the product, but if the consumers are making that push for a change, the company will change so that they can continue to make large amounts of profit.
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