Digging Up iPhones: Importance of Mining in Modern Technology

It’s gotten to the point where having a smartphone is almost a necessity in our culture. We use them to communicate, share ideas, order food, take pictures of food and look at pictures of other people’s food.

Source: Flickr

Have you ever thought how iPhones get here?

In addition to the amazing brains behind the technology, mining actually forms the main driver for iPhones (and all other modern devices for that matter).

If you’re holding your phone, you almost have all the elements in the periodic table in the palm of your hand and most of them came from underground.


What do we mine for iPhones?

It’s a very long list of elements and minerals (scientific word for crystals) and they have different functions.

Next time you run out of battery on your iPhone, you can blame cobalt, lithium, aluminium and graphite which give the device power.

In order for this power to circulate, the iPhone is packed full of elements which are very good at conducting and regulating electricity. These include gold, silver, copper, tungsten, phosphorous, arsenic, boron, gallium, indium, tantalum, antimony and silicon.

Without nickel, iron, and neodymium, we would not be able to listen to music, talk on the phone, or feel our phone vibrate in our pocket.

The most defining feature of an iPhone is its screen and it’s much more complicated than it looks.

Although the number of times I’ve cracked my screen disputes this, the glass is packed full of potassium to make it stronger (I think it needs a bit more). On top of this, a thin layer of indium-tin-oxide makes the touchscreen work.

Instagram photos wouldn’t look as good if iPhones did not have ‘rare earth elements’. This is a group of 17 elements that aren’t actually rare at all, but they are responsible for the rich colour we see on our screens.

All these elements and minerals come from these beautiful things called rocks. Different types of rocks have different groups of elements and in order to get these elements, we need to bring the rocks up from the ground.

The mineral bornite or ‘peacock ore’ mined for copper. Image: Flickr

Is mining all that necessary?

Mining often gets a bad rap and we usually think of it as something unnatural, destructive and very un-environmentally friendly.

Yes, it’s not very pretty and it’s had a rough history. But is it all that bad?

We owe a lot to mining. Without it, we would have no cars, no roads, no bricks or cement to build our houses. Electricity? Nope. What about makeup? Nope – my all natural clay facemask even comes from a mine.

This might leave a bad taste in your mouth, but don’t let it.


Ethical and environmental guidelines

Mining may not look pretty, but companies nowadays have to deal with extremely strict environmental and ethical criteria.

Companies employ a large range of people that spend literally years analysing all aspects of a potential mining site – the flow of groundwater, nearby rivers, drainage pathways, the types of floral and faunal habitat and the potential health issues it could pose to workers and residents.

In addition to this, companies are legally obligated to set aside a percentage of their budget for the:

  • Prevention of environmental damage
  • Constant on site and downstream monitoring of water, soil and air quality
  • Post-production rehabilitation of the site

A lot of mining sites are so well rehabilitated, you would think they are a natural landscape. Read about some of Australia’s rehabilitated sites here.

This could be a rehabilitated mine site. Image: Flickr

Overseas operations

Unfortunately, mining can become rather sketchy in lower-socio economic countries where the socio-political situation is much more unstable than our own. In these countries, smaller mining companies do not have to follow the strict guidelines like we do.

Even if guidelines exist, they are often not well-monitored by the government and many small companies will operate illegally, leading to social and environmental problems.

Thankfully, western companies are required to operate by international human rights and environmental standards and abide by both local laws and Australian laws that apply extraterritorially.


International aid and mining

Here in Australia, organisations such as AusAID run short courses for overseas government mining officials to teach them how to manage resources sustainability and ethically.

Large mining companies like BHP have created various foundations to help improve quality of life, increase education and hygiene in local communities where they operate.

So, whether we like it or not, mining makes our current lifestyle possible. If you own a phone, laptop, house, car, even makeup and jewellery, you owe thanks to the mining industry. In future however, we need to invest in recycling materials both to reduce waste and to prevent us running out of natural resources.

While mining still has a lot of room to improve, it is often not as bad as it’s portrayed and modern society wouldn’t be here without it.



9 Responses to “Digging Up iPhones: Importance of Mining in Modern Technology”

  1. Cherese Sonkkila says:

    I love the structure of this blog. The way you begin talking about smartphones to reel the reader in and then broaden it to other things mining gives us.
    It’s a good point to make that mining is needed, we just need to do it sustainably. Just like forestry. Really interesting!

  2. Jack Simkin says:

    I’ve always thought the next ‘mining boom’ is going to be collecting e-waste from our old landfills. It’s unfortunate to think about where a lot of these rare earth minerals come from. It’s taken a fair few years to get sustainable supply chains on clothing and food labels, is source labelling on technology the next step? Great article

  3. Luke Hickinbotham says:

    Interesting read, amazing how well the mining companies can rehabilitate their ex-mining sights!

  4. ke kang says:

    Interesting read. It seems that mining is the foundation of our civilization. maybe you can write the E-waste next post.

  5. Felix says:

    Awesome piece. I guess we don’t usually think about where all our stuff comes from!

  6. Em says:

    Great read! very informative! Looking forward to the next post.

  7. Nathalie Bolton says:

    Great piece! I had no idea mining was so important for things we use in our daily life!

  8. Chris says:

    I didn’t realise that there were so many elements in our iPhones! It’s crazy how all these elements can be manipulated to create touch screens and batteries. Love the humour in the piece! Great read!

  9. Ellen Rochelmeyer says:

    I had no idea elements and minerals were so prevalent in our technology- there’s more to our devices than circuit boards and wires. I suppose this is one of the main issues when dealing with our E-waste.