Metals in our Smartphones
Electronic devices such as phones, laptops, digital cameras and video games, use various minerals to function. Some of the main minerals in a smartphone, are Gold (Au), Aluminum (Al) and Tin (Sn). Below is a list of some of the main minerals used in a smartphone.
- Copper (Cu)
- Silicon (Si)
- Silver (Ag)
- Platinum (Pt)
- Iron (Fe)
- Tantalum (Ta)
Aluminium (Al) has a white-silver colour, and is the third most abundant metal on earth. It is also one of the lightest structural metals, and highly ductile. Furthermore, it is heat reflective, corrosion resistant, easily recyclable, and conducts electricity well. The melting point for aluminium is about 660°C, and the boiling point is about 2519°C. This metal is often alloyed with copper, magnesium or zinc because by itself it is not particularly strong. Tin is found in products such as cans, foils, kitchen tools, window frames, transportation, architecture and so much more. It is also used in the battery casing and the glass screen of a smartphone. There are about 31 grams of Aluminium used in a smartphone.
The use of Tin (Sn) has dropped, as people replaced tin with plastic. The melting point for tin is about 232°C, and the boiling point is about 2586°C. This metal is resistant to corrosion, so it is often used to coat other metals like steel to prevent them from corroding. Some tin compounds were used to paint ships to prevent barnacles, but because tin is deadly to marine life, they now have banned it in most countries. Only half a percent of tin used in a smartphone. They are used as a soldering agent, with other metals such as copper, lead, and silver.
Gold (Au) is the most valuable metal in a phone. It is one of the only two metals that are not the colour grey or white when pure. Gold is ductile, does not tarnish, chemically unreactive and conducts electricity. It is also heat resistant. The melting point for gold is about 1064°C, and the boiling point is about 2836°C. Because it has high values, gold is often alloyed with other metals. Gold is used to make jewelry, coins, gold medals, architecture, and sometimes used in drugs to treat specific medical conditions. Surprisingly, gold is a key element to function most electronic devices. In a smartphone, it is used in the connectors, switches, and connecting and coating wires. There are about 0.034 grams of gold in each smartphone, which is worth about 1.82 dollars. In a computer, it is used in the microchips, connectors, wire coatings, and more.
Where do these Metals come from? Major consumers?
Gold, Aluminium and the 3 T’s: Tin, tungsten, and tantalum are very important to function a smartphone. All of these metals except aluminium mostly come from eastern Congo, in Africa. Gold is also found in Johannesburg in South Africa, tin is also found in Malaysia, and they both can be found in Yanacocha in Peru, and Indonesia too. Aluminium is often mined in Australia, Africa, and South America. The major consumers of gold, tin, and aluminium are China.
One of the issues is safety issues. The mines in eastern Congo are controlled and taxed, by the armed groups. They make millions of money each year by trading minerals such as gold, and the 3 T’s. With the money, they buy guns, grenades, and weapons to use in war. 500 million people have died because of this. Also, did you know that people who work in the mines don’t earn much? For example, Patrick Bwana a 12-year-old boy has to work at a mine from 6 in the morning, ‘till 3 in the afternoon, and all he gets is 5000 Congolese francs each day. That’s only about 3-5 dollars! “I used to go to school, but my father died, and no one paid for my studies anymore.” He says, according to Jacob Kushner from NPR. Bwana is one of the ten thousands of kids who work in the mines of eastern Congo. Another issue is environmental issues. After these minerals are mined from Congo and illegally exported to other countries (Which is also another issue!), they go to factories in Thailand, Malaysia, China, and India to be mixed with other minerals from around the world. This causes a lot of pollution.
What can we do?
There are some small things we can do to help. One idea is this: us consumers can demand major smartphone companies such as Apple and Samsung to stop using metals that are mined from places where workers are abused and not treated well, and make sure all the metals that are used in our phones are conflict-free. It is hard to track down where the minerals come from and if they are really conflict-free because they are illegally exported to other countries, and even more when they are mixed with other minerals. But these companies like to improve on their products by feedback from us. So if a large number of people demands these things, they might notice and start using conflict-free minerals to make their products. To make this happen, we have to raise awareness and tell the world how much of a problem this is. This may take longer, but it’s still worth it. Another thing we could do is help different campaigns and services. UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) is an organization that protects, defends and fights for the right of a child. You can donate to children who are suffering from unsanitized water, the lack of food, gender equality, and of course child labor. You can donate to UNICEF monthly, or just once, and you can choose how much to donate. I would recommend this more, because you can support these children more directly, than just raising awareness.
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