Aluminum, copper, silver, gold, platinum.
Lanthanum, Europium, Neodymium, Gadolinium.
This might sound like some alchemist's recipe list, but these are all types of precious metals within your cell phone. These elements have unique materials properties that allow your phone to pass on electrical signals, keep from overheating, and detect your finger slide across the screen as you play whatever flash game is currently trending. Although present in very small quantities, without these metals your smartphone would cease to exist.
Rare earth metals, which have atomic numbers 57-71 on the periodic table, are actually very plentiful. However, they are generally found in nature at very low concentrations. Therefore, during the mining process huge quantities of land must be disturbed in order to access a sufficient amount of these elements, which causes devastation to the environment around it.
The most common method used to extract rare earth elements is open pit mining. This process is exactly what it sounds like, rocks and minerals are dug out from the earth so that metal ore can be extracted, leaving behind a large pit where the rock used to be.
Because so much land is needed for this process, the creation of new open pit mines ruins habitats and displaces wildlife. In addition to this, the land that remains after the mining process often remains barren for many years. However, extracting these metals is necessary not only to power your cell phone, but also for almost any other electronic appliance.
As we use continue to use more and more of these elements in our electronics, the number of locations where they can be found at high enough quantities to be economically worth extracting begins to dwindle.
Because the demand for these metals continues to grow, many researchers are looking for ways to extract them from old cell phones. Since each rare earth metal has different characteristics and are present in such small quantities within electronics, separating them efficiently has many challenges. However, these and precious metals are generally found in much higher concentrations within cell phones than in their natural ore.
When you throw out your old cell phone instead of recycling it, it contributes to what is called e-waste--discarded electronics that build up in landfills. Not only does this waste contain many valuable metals, but it can also leach out toxic chemicals. As methods of recycling precious metals from cell phones become more efficient and cost effective, these e-waste deposits look more and more like a potential source of profit. After all, with such high concentrations of valuable metals in comparison to what occurs naturally in the earth, landfills could be the new mining sites of the future.