Smaller, faster, smarter. Technological advances have reduced the size of electronic devices whilst endowing them with ever more speed, intelligence, and functionality making them ever more personal and indispensible.
Rare earths play a huge role in almost all electronics and green technologies today, and judging by the unprecedented pace at which the world is embracing smartphones and tablets, our dependence on rare earths is rising exponentially. Such dependence certainly won’t wane until an alternative is discovered.
Of the 17 rare earth elements in the periodic table, Neodymium, Yttrium, Lanthanum, Cerium, Europium, Terbium, Dysprosium, Praseodymium and Gadolinium are most widely used in the electronics industry, in green technologies and in the defense and avionics industries.
It’s a well-known fact that Apple’s iPhones and iPads are almost entirely made in outsourced Chinese facilities and that a considerable amount of rare earth minerals can be found in these popular devices.
China’s monopoly of the rare earths industry and its export quota restrictions have encouraged most big players in the world’s electronics industry to establish manufacturing facilities in China. With low-cost Chinese labor, much of the costs involved in manufacturing iPhones and iPads is attributable to technology costs and the cost of rare earth minerals. The table in Figure 1 lists the export prices of the metals and their oxides. Since China’s domestic prices for these metals and oxides are much lower, it makes perfect sense for Apple to manufacture its smartphones and tablets in China.
One of the most striking features of iPhones and iPads are their colorful displays. Yttrium is used to produce the white and grey phosphors; Europium produces the red phosphors and also acts as an activator for Yttrium phosphors; green phosphors are produced by Terbium. While trivalent Europium produces red phosphors, divalent Europium produces a range of blue colors. Dysprosium, Gadolinium, Lanthanum and Praseodymium are also used to make the color screen.
The sleek polished look of the new iPhones and iPads is the result of glass polishing using the rare earth oxides of Cerium, Lanthanum and Praseodymium. Neodymium and Dysprosium are used in the circuitry, speakers and vibration unit of these popular devices. Both these rare earths as well as Praseodymium exhibit strong magnetic properties. Praseodymium and Gadolinium can be found in the circuitry and speakers, while Lanthanum could be a component of the batteries that are used in iPhones and iPads. The magnet in the iPad’s Smart Cover is thought to be a Neodymium alloy. Gadolinium oxide could be present in the fast, high-capacity flash memory.
With booming consumerism, high-tech lifestyles, emphasis on green power and the growing number of rare earth applications there could be a huge shortfall of Dysprosium, Neodymium, Terbium, Yttrium and Europium by 2015.