How are Precious Metals Used in Electronics?

At least 69 of the chemical elements in the periodic table have been identified as common components in electronic products. While everyday metals like iron and aluminium make up the bulk of these elements, other metals have unique properties that make them very attractive to use as they make our electronic products lighter, smarter, faster or cheaper. At the same time, many of the metals used are hazardous both to people and the environment. Many metals are melted and mixed to form alloys which are common on circuit boards and other electronic components, and recovering these combined metals into their pure forms is a challenge we need to address in the future.

Metals that are good conductors, durable and cheap have long been highly desirable in the manufacturing business. In recent years, however, the electronics industry has adopted a more comprehensive approach in which different sustainability criteria are given more consideration. Hazardous substances such as arsenic, lead, mercury, beryllium and others have been replaced by less harmful ones. Manufacturing processes are also constantly being developed and refined in order to discover alternative materials and more efficient methods. Many cooperation projects between producers, research institutes and universities have ended up leading to developments that have later become the norm.

The ”Eternal Life” of Metals

In 2020, the Swedish government set up a special enquiry with the aim of developing a strategy for how Sweden can work towards a circular economy. This concept can be explained as ensuring that all parts and all materials used in a product are recycled and reused through several life cycles. This applies to metals, for example, which can be used repeatedly without any reduction in quality. The strategy is also intended to find ways of making this development profitable, as sustainability has to take financial viability into account alongside environmental and social aspects.

In 2018, the company Material Economics and Återvinningsindustrierna (Sweden’s trade organisation for the recycling industry) released a joint report which addressed the value tied up in waste that goes untreated today. They assessed that if Sweden employed 100 per cent circular processes, we would derive another 42 billion kronor from the waste we generate nationally. To reach that point, however, we first need to develop our technology and processes so that the recycled materials have a higher financial and environmental value than the waste that enters the recycling process.

What’s Inside a Normal Mobile Phone?

An ordinary mobile phone provides a good example of the metals currently used in electronic products. Modern electronics have cases made of aluminium, iron and copper. Circuit boards, displays and other “smart” applications are hideouts for tiny amounts of several rare metals. Mobile phone batteries are also being developed across the board using different technologies. One important factor has been replacing lead and cadmium with lithium and cobalt, and today most rechargeable batteries are lithium-ion batteries. However, lithium mining has very negative effects on the environment and one of the main challenges in the future will be to develop methods to facilitate materials recovery of lithium.

While a mobile phone weighing less than 200 grams is primarily made up of iron, aluminium, copper and cobalt, it can also include over 20 additional chemical elements. These all have their own unique properties and meet different needs, but only make up 10 per cent of the weight of the phone.

Semiconductors

  • Gallium

Loudspeakers

  • Cobalt
  • Iron

Loudspeaker magnets

  • Rare earth metals

Casing

  • Aluminium

Cameras

  • Pewter

Capacitator

  • Nickel

Contacts

  • Gold

Circuit boards

  • Gold
  • Silver

LCD screens

  • Aluminium
  • Rare earth metals

LED

  • Gallium
  • Indium

Conductors

  • Silver

Published 2021-02-26