As you do retail combat on the front lines on this Black Friday, remember that much of what you’re buying is made possible by rare metals, and the supply chains of the companies selling you everything from cars to cell phones are likely 10 or more links deep.
A simple electronic toothbrush, for instance, requires circuit boards dotted with materials of tantalum in a capacitor that helps it store energy.
It also requires a neodymium, dysprosium, boron and iron magnet to provide the power to spin its bristles and it needs batteries made from nickel and cadmium or lithium.
Smart Rare Metals
Buying that special someone a smartphone this year?
60% of smartphones are made from metals or ceramics. A mobile phone’s antenna requires titanium and boron. Its transmitter requires titanium and barium. Its condensers? Tantalum and strontium. The speaker and microphone require samarium and cobalt. This team of rare metals is held together by a beryliium connector and boosted by a gallium power amplifier.
Rare earth element phosphors make a phone’s screen brighter. The smarter phones get, the more metals they require. Smartphones contain more metals, in greater amount and often at higher grades than their predecessors, according to David Abraham, author of “The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age.”
Notice the screen of your smartphone getting bigger? If you purchase anything with a screen this holiday season, you’re very likely buying indium powder as, when it’s combined with tin, it becomes a unique transparent conductor that sticks well to glass.
Abraham writes that smartphones require four to six times more gallium than a regular cell phone just a few years ago.
You could just skip the middleman and get your friends and relatives bulk tantalum or dysprosium, I suppose. This gift probably wouldn’t go over too well, unless they’re metal traders, but it could be a good investment. As rare metals become more, well, rare, the supply chains of smartphones and other electronics will be increasingly strained as we consume more and more technology and even our children’s toys become more interconnected.
Rare metals are key to building our future of consumer technology, and there is likely no greater example than the rush to purchase new electronics every Black Friday.