Let a scientist with an industrial blender explain what’s really in your phone


This month, an exhibition from a diverse group of designers curated by MoMA’s Paola Antonelli became the first major curatorial effort to reckon with the end of the planet and design’s role in that death. That includes contributions from designers studying the way e-waste is created and ore is mined for electronics–a major source of emissions and conflict around the world. Another vivid illustration of the tremendous scale of that problem comes thanks to a recent experiment by two geologists in the U.K., who set out to answer a seemingly very simple question: What’s inside a smartphone, really?

In the abstract, designers and the public–should be able to access this information with relative ease. But in practice, it’s remarkably difficult to track down the amount or origin of the minerals inside a phone. That’s part of the problem: If engineers and designers don’t know what they’re building, how they can they course correct?

Dr. Arjan Dijkstra and Dr. Colin Wilkins are both geologists–they focus on mineralogy and mining at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University of Plymouth, in the U.K. In a recent project alongside the school’s Creative Associates group, which visualizes scientific research at the school for the public, they used an industrial blender to liquify an iPhone, analyze the resulting chemical soup, and then visualize the amount of conflict minerals (a term that refers to mined materials that feed a conflict or war) and other rare or precious metals inside. After heating the liquid phone up to 500 degrees Celsius, they dissolved the resulting stew in acid–a process that reduced the phone’s materials to a point that they could be analyzed using a mass spectrometer, or a machine that could identify the pinpoint the mass of each type of metal inside the soup.

In addition to plenty of  rare earth minerals, they found 36mg of gold and a whopping 900mg of tungsten, both conflict minerals, which are extracted from countries or regions where war is perpetuated by mining, like the Democratic Republic of Congo. In all, you’d need to mine about 33 pounds of ore (roughly speaking, any material from which metal can be derived) to make a single phone.

Ironically, as two designers involved in researching e-waste explained here on Co.Design last month, many conflict zones are now being mined a second time; as people throw out their old phones, all that material can end up back in the very developing regions that extracted it in the first place, where workers–often children and the very poor–extract the ore a second time.

What’s in our phone? We know a little more, now. But how we should reckon with that information is far from clear.

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