Smartphone metallurgy and the price of comfort

spodumene LiAl(Si2O6) – and lithium itself is used to make cathodes in lithium-ion batteries. Along with lithium, cobalt and tantalum are key battery components. In particular, tantalum is indispensable in the production of capacitors. Cobalt and tantalum are very toxic metals, sometimes mined in hellish conditions. One of the main sources of tantalum and niobium is coltan. In the first table of this article, it was also indicated that tantalum and niobium are part of the smartphone circuit boards, and tantalum is part of the contacts. Both cobalt and coltan are artisanally mined in eastern Congo. In 1998, there even broke out Second Congo War, the main stumbling block in which was precisely the control over the extraction of niobium and tantalum – mobile devices were just moving into the mass market, a cheap source of tantalum and niobium was a source of colossal enrichment. In addition, in the same regions in the east of the Congo, tungsten is mined (in the form of wolframite, which I mentioned above).

Congolese cobalt and coltan

More than 60% of the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the “copper belt” located in the southeastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The country has a whole government agency, which controls the informal, artisanal cobalt mining sector. To the share of local “miners” (creuseurs) accounts for approximately 20% of this production, the rest of the cobalt in the region is developed by foreign (primarily Chinese) companies that have taken a stake in the bankrupt local concern Gécamines. In addition, the Chinese maintain a network of “factories” that buy cobalt from lone miners, including minors. Cobalt is mined even by children as young as seven years old. According to some estimatesthe miner’s working day lasts 14-16 hours and brings a person income in the region of $ 2.

Illustration from here:
Illustration from here:

Further, Chinese specialists mix industrial and artisanal cobalt, purify raw materials (dirt) to cobalt hydroxide, which is transported to the ports of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Durban (South Africa), and then to China. There, cobalt undergoes additional purification and enters the market.

The combined revenue of these companies is trillions of dollars, moreover, that only in the period from 2016 to 2018 the market price of cobalt jumped by 300%. Therefore, foreign companies are facilitating further exploration of cobalt in the mountainous and wooded areas close to the Zambian border. Dozens of new excavations are recorded every year, but working conditions there remain inhuman. Artisanal cobalt mining in the Congo employs more than 250,000 people, of whom at least 35,000 are children.

Thus, China currently possesses the most advanced cobalt purification and enrichment technologies, while the entire Chinese territory contains only about 2% of the world’s cobalt reserves. In order to occupy its production capacity, China has no choice but to continue to develop the Congolese reserves. There is a little more cobalt on the territory of Russia – about 4% of the world reserves, but all of it is contained in complex ores, in particular, nickel, and in Russia (unlike the Congo) it is impossible to mine cobalt “by itself” – at least this until Norilsk Nickel succeeded. Nickel, like cobalt, can be used to make smartphone batteries, but cobalt batteries are much better, as they hold a charge longer and do not overheat. An ambitious development project cobalt-free batteries is being conducted by Panasonic, but it is far from complete, and such batteries will initially be designed not for smartphones, but for Tesla electric vehicles, the batteries for which are manufactured by Panasonic.

The situation with the extraction of coltan in the Congo is even more odious than with cobalt. Coltan began to be mined in the Congo in the early 1990s, when it was considered a waste by-product from tin mining. First Congo War 1996-1997 was won by the eastern rebels, who were supported by Uganda and Rwanda. As a result, the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was overthrown, the country was renamed from Zaire to the DRC, and the equatorial jungle flooded with weapons was not actually controlled from the capital. It was during this period that the commercial potential of coltan, and this mineral in just a couple of years gave rise to a real “tantalum fever”. Coltan mining was quickly brought under control by armed gangs. By 2000, up to 30% of children in the Congo were out of school because they were busy mining coltan. At the same time, coltan is not cobalt, but a much more expensive raw material; the average salary in the DRC by the beginning of the century was $10 per month, while a successful coltan miner in those years could pan metal for $10-50 per week. The Rwandans staged armed raids for coltan. Such a robbery in 2000-2001 brought the Rwandan authorities up to $1 million per month from the export of coltan. For comparison: in the same period, Rwanda earned about $200,000 per month. To top it off, the sale of coltan in Rwanda and the Congo was taxed, and people were forcibly kept in the mines under the supervision of armed guards, not allowed to leave the mine until the day’s work was done.


The bleak picture from this brief review makes you look at the true value of your smartphone in a new way (by the way, I did not touch on the environmental aspects here, thinking that the humanitarian ones would suffice). According to this According to the source, the service life of most smartphones and conventional cell phones is about 10 years, and the production of smartphones is growing amid the decline in the production of conventional cell phones, but the point after which smartphones will prevail over traditional cellular phones has not yet been reached, and can only be passed towards the end current decade:

Thus, the recycling of old cell phones is becoming of fundamental importance right before our eyes. Extraction of some metals from smartphones incomparably more efficientthan from ore. A few examples:

Copper. In old mobile phones it is about 14%, and in typical copper ore it is about 1.5%.

Cobalt (including batteries) – up to 19% of the mass of a mobile phone, which is about 100 times more than the content of cobalt in the ore.

Silver – in old mobile phones it accounts for about 2800 ppm, while in the richest silver or gold-silver ores silver accounts for hundreds, more often tens of ppm.

Gold – an average of 270 ppm in a mobile phone and a few ppm in gold ores.

Palladium – about 100 ppm in mobile phone and 2-3 ppm in platinum ores.

I believe that smartphone mining is waiting for its investors and enthusiasts, and the environmental relevance of this most important industrial area is no less than humanitarian. In addition, it is precisely this kind of mining that could now become the most realistic source for replenishing stocks of rare metals – and, accordingly, the production of new smartphones.

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