Mobile phones have become a huge part of our daily lives, but what are they made of? And could the materials they are made of be visualised? This was the challenge set for us by an initiative organised by the Sustainable Earth Institute at the University of Plymouth - to enable researchers to communicate with wider audiences by partnering with creative organisations.
Geologists Dr Arjan Dijkstra and Dr Colin Wilkins from the University’s School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences were investigating how we are using earth’s resources, especially the metals known as and rare earth elements in our most often-used technology. They wanted an animation that could be educational for the general public on the future of sustainable systems, as well as useful for students and researchers. The answer was an exploding phone whose contents re-arranged to show quantities of materials to scale. Audiences are able to ‘see’ the quantities of these materials in one phone, and in all the phones made in a year (that’s 1,475 million smartphones)
The first step for Dijkstra and Wilkins was to carry out a full elemental analysis of a mobile phone in their labs. For this, they crushed a mobile phone in a blender, dissolved the scrap, and analysed the solution in Plymouth University’s trace metal laboratory. The results showed that everyday phones are rich in gold, neodymium, tungsten and cobalt, to name a few critical materials. For instance, concentration-wise a phone has 100 times more gold, or 10 times more tungsten, than an ore that geologists would call ‘high-grade’.
The ‘exploding phone’ aims to inform and stimulate further discussion on renewable and sustainable sourcing of materials. It is important that consumers are more aware of the materials that make everyday technology work, where they come from, and their environmental or social costs.