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What is between volcanoes, smart phones and the digital age?

Most likely, this article will be read on the screen of your phone, whose color and sharpness are only possible thanks to the rare metals inside it. Inside every smartphone on Earth are 16 of the 17 rare earth metals, most of which are mined in China

A tourist takes a picture of the Teide volcano in Tenerife, Canary Islands with her smartphone. Image:
A tourist takes a picture of the Teide volcano in Tenerife, Canary Islands with her smartphone. Image:

The year 2020 and the year 2021 are marked as years in which the global supply chains, in various fields, reached and stretched to their end points. The Corona crisis, the current chip crisis, and even the cargo ship crisis that blocked the Suez Canal recently. These crises are the most famous of them, but did you know that there is a cargo ship container crisis? And did you know that there is a sand crisis in the world?

Most of us do not know or are familiar with the way the world works, the mining processes, the supply chains and the production and distribution processes of the products we use. But over 88% of us in Israel have a smartphone, a smart device, to which we are completely addicted and which is our main tool for reading news and information, communicating with the world and managing our lives. Studies from before the corona crisis showed that we unlock the screen about 150 times a day, and click, swipe and tap on the screen over 2,600 times a day. These are two single numbers from a cascade of statistics that show our addiction to the device and the screen.

But what do we know about the device that is within arm's reach of us throughout the day?

We live and work in the digital age when most of our information, communication and relationships come to us and are mediated to us through screens. Most of us also accept the reality as it is and for granted when all the advanced technology just works, but without knowing how and why it works. Most likely, this article will be read on the screen of your phone, whose color and sharpness are only possible thanks to the rare metals inside it.

The magma that brings out the rare materials from the depths to the surface

We have all probably seen the eruption of volcanoes in books or on the news, and even here in Israel there are, among other things, dormant volcanoes in the Golan Heights. Volcanoes are created by geological activity and the movement of the earth's plates, when the magma, for various reasons, is pressed and rises up until it breaks through the earth's crust and erupts out of volcanoes. Those magma bursts rise from depths of about ten kilometers below the surface, and as they rise they bring with them various minerals and elements.

Among those elements also appear the rare metals known in English as rare earth metals. Although oil, they are not rare and the source of oil is that it is difficult to extract them and that they do not appear in their natural elemental form, but in the form of oxides (compounds with oxygen). There are a total of 17 rare metals in the periodic table also called rare elements. If you want to find them easily, 15 of them appear in the rectangular table below the periodic table.

Every day we come across all kinds of metals including iron, gold, silver, platinum and copper. We know their names well, and probably also know what they look like and even their value. The rare metals have exotic and hard-to-pronounce names including yttrium, ytterbium, neodymium, dysphorsium and europium. I guess you are wondering why it is important to know their names, and how rare metals from the depths of the earth are even related to the digital age?

The short answer is that without these metals, today's digital age and the electronics revolution that began in the 50s would not have been possible.

Metals, or elements, have unique fluorescent, magnetic, and conductive properties that make them important for our world's most advanced technologies in the next 70 years.

We wouldn't have a color TV without Europium which created the red color for example, and we wouldn't have smartphones, tablets or laptops without the other rare metals. Their unique features allowed the technological world to go through the miniaturization revolution of electronics and technology products.

the periodic table. Image:
the periodic table. Image:

Phones, cars and batteries to capture electricity from renewable energy

Inside every smartphone on earth are 16 of the 17 rare earth metals (one of them is radioactive and of course unusable). Their unique magnetic properties make it possible to create very small speakers inside the smartphone, but also inside our headphones. Even the autofocus mechanism of the smartphone camera works thanks to a neodymium magnet. The vibration ability of our smart device is made possible by neodymium and dysprosium.

Beyond the rare metals found in our smartphones, 70 different elements are used, out of 87 stable elements in the entire periodic table. That is, 80% of all the elements in nature are inside our smart device, allowing us to enjoy the digital world. The average weight of a smartphone ranges from about 130 to 200 grams, depending on the screen size. Of this weight, there is only about one gram of rare metals. Without their existence, our devices today would weigh tens to hundreds of grams more, and would not fit the size of our palm.  

According to the latest estimates from March 2021, there are over 3.8 billion smartphones in the world, out of approximately 4.9 billion mobile phone devices that exist and operate in the world. That is, according to one gram in each device, there are 3,800 tons of rare metals in all the smartphones in the world.

Smartphones and tablets are not the only revolution. We are at the threshold of two more technological revolutions that are completely dependent on these rare metals. The first is the transformation of hybrid and electric vehicles. At the end of 2020, Elon Musk promised that by 2030 the Tesla car company would produce 20 million vehicles a year. The rare metals are a critical component in these vehicles, and for comparison, each Toyota Prius car uses about 13 kg of these metals. That is, only the Tesla company alone will need 40% of the total global production of the rare metals, which today stands at about 170,000 tons per year, in order to meet this ambitious goal. The second revolution is the transition to green and renewable energy, based on solar and wind energy, in order to fight global warming and break away from our dependence on polluting fuels. Wind turbines are the green strategy of several countries around the world to produce gigawatts of electricity, including China and England. In this case too, a very large amount of rare metals is needed, since for every production of a megawatt of electricity from a wind turbine, about half a kilogram of such a metal is needed - and the world is planning many gigawatts. China, which has published a national strategy to transition to wind turbine-based energy production, recently published restrictions on the export of those rare metals, since it will need a larger amount than it produces each year. Even in the field of quantum computing, rare metals have an important role, and already today there are companies whose quantum computer is based on the use of charged atoms (ions) of rare metals, especially ytterbium.

Today, the rare metals are mined in eight mines around the world, but over 90% of them are mined in China. The supply chain of the rare metals is more complex, because after mining it is necessary to extract and refine the metals in order to be able to use them and produce other components from them, such as magnets. Sometimes, each such step is carried out in a different country. Today, the total trade in these rare metals is about six billion dollars, enabling a global economy and trade in the amount of more than a trillion dollars, and above all enabling the digital age.

The next time you watch a volcanic eruption, you'll know that it not only produces the foundational rocks of the Earth, but also the foundations that enable current and future technological revolutions.

More of the topic in Hayadan:

3 תגובות

  1. Nevertheless, the obvious conclusion from this vague article is that renewable energies and electric vehicles are technological solutions that are bad to the point of being stupid. Solar and wind energies have a poor and primitive energy density. cause a terrible use of resources, expropriate huge areas of land and cause waste that only a metaphysical factor is currently able to understand how we will handle in the future. In the meantime, the giant gas companies in California are donating to environmental organizations to promote their abolitionist agenda, and along the way, mainly with the help of the Democratic Party, they are closing down nuclear reactors. To watch this tragic comedy in a distilled way, I recommend watching the climate conferences once a year.

  2. Interesting:
    It's just that it was appropriate to be careful with language free of mistakes and unnecessary excuses,
    This is the case, for example, because in Hebrew plurals are not inflected
    After all, the "statistics waterfall" is great.
    Similarly, instead of "miniaturization" it would have been proper and correct to write miniaturization,
    The last paragraph reads: "The next time you watch a volcanic eruption, you will know that it not only produces the basic rocks of the Earth,"
    Not true ! Lava is a melted product of the bedrock and does not "create" them.

  3. It is written in a very shallow and unclear way. There are a lot of jumps between the different topics in the article and I didn't always understand what the writer was talking about. I was disappointed to see such an article on such a well-respected website, expecting its editors to filter more carefully the articles they present to readers.

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