Rarely would one think beyond manufacturing facilities or factory floors when asked of the iPhone’s origins. According to an interesting report (9/26/2012) from Jay Greene of CNET, though, the humble beginnings of Apple’s popular smartphone—as well as those for many other popular technological devices—extend as far as back to nature, from the mountainous regions in California to the massive mineral fields that are scattered around Baotou, China.
As various stories associated with the mining regions would reveal, extracting the specific “rare-earths” needed for popular electronic products is not as simple—nor as safe—as it appears: various ores, when processed, leave hazardous, cancer-inducing materials like thorium, whereas the continuous use of mineral-extraction procedures are prone to give rise to a slew of long term environmental burdens. Yet, without undertaking the necessary steps and risks to obtain key mineral ingredients, the iPhone as we know it would not be possible. To illustrate, the mineral, neodymium, is commonly used in the iPhone’s circulatory board and is needed to create special magnets that allow the handset’s speakers to vibrate. Cerium, praseodymium, and europium, on the other hand, are critical rare-earth elements that are applied differently to ensure the iPhone maintains its bright, polished look.
In order to allow for a better, more comprehensive understanding on what goes where in the iPhone’s “mineral” makeup, here is the useful infographic that was originally posted on CNET.
At the moment, China is responsible for supplying approximately 90% of the world’s rare earth minerals. Unfortunately, the country’s mining industry also happens to be one of the world’s worst environmental offenders. As stated by Om Malik of Gigaom, the proper use and disposal of earth materials, along with the extent to which certain parties can gain access to them, will become a major issue of contention in the future. Molycorp is currently among the organizations finding ways to process the elements without becoming a burden to the environment.