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Where Today’s High-Tech Metals and Minerals Come From

Updated on January 25, 2012
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I’m sitting at my computer as I type this. My cell phone is charging next to me. My fancy camera is plugged into the computer because I was transferring pictures a few minutes ago. In the other room I can hear my iPod beeping with alerts about my ongoing Scramble with Friends games. It’s plugged in to my laptop so it can charge. And I have to confess, I don’t usually think about all of the metals and minerals that go into making these many gadgets. But I do know somewhere in the back of my mind that the earth had to be mined in order for all of the parts to come together to make my high-tech life so simple.

Have you ever wondered what metals and minerals go into the making of your consumer electronics? Have you ever wondered where those minerals come from? Here are some of those answers in the form of a list of common metals and minerals used in those gadgets and the locations that they typically come from.

Beryllium

Beryllium is a versatile metal that is used all across American homes. Many computers use beryllium. Many other home appliances use this metal. Auto electronics sometimes use it. It can also be found in doctor’s offices and hospitals because it’s in medical equipment. And you know what? This one comes primarily from the United States. It is mined in Alaska and is also mined on the mainland in Utah.

Cobalt

Many of the gadgets that we use today rely on lithium batteries. The number of gadgets expected to use these batteries is expected to increase sharply in the years to come. Moreover these types of batteries are used in electric vehicles, which are expected to hit the roads with increasing popularity in the next decade or less. These batteries all require cobalt. Cobalt for our gadgets is primarily sourced from Canada. However, it also comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. This part is controversial because a lot of the terror that we’ve seen happen there in recent years is due to the mining of “conflict minerals” in this area.

Learn more about conflict minerals

Fluorspar

This is a versatile crystal that comes in a spectrum of different colors from light to dark. It has a lot of different applications today ranging from paint to floor insulation, so it’s something that you might find throughout your home. It is also used in place of glass in high-performance optics, which means that it’s found in some consumer electronics. This mineral primarily comes from Mexico.

Indium

This product has had a variety of different uses over the years. These days, however, almost all indium goes into making thin films for flat screen displays. This one comes mostly from Japan.

Gold

You might think that gold is primarily mined for jewelry but it actually has a place in a lot of consumer electronics. Gold, as previously discussed in regards to cobalt, is a conflict mineral that comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some gold also comes from China and South Africa.

Magnesium

We all want our electronics to be as light as possible since we carry around so many of them at once these days. I know that I typically carry a phone and a camera and may sometimes also be carrying a laptop and iPod. And others have tablets or eReaders with them on a regular basis. One important thing we need if we want lighter electronics is magnesium. It helps makes our mobile items light but still durable. This one used to come mostly from the United States but recently has started to come primarily from Turkey and China.

Niobium

This is a metal that has seen significant growth in use in the past fifteen years. It is used in micro capacitors (electronics). It is also used in many different types of medical devices including MRI scanners and Pacemakers. A majority of this metal comes from Brazil. In fact, 70% of the global market for this metal is controlled by a single Brazilian company called CBMM.

Palladium

This metal is used in both consumer electronics and automotive applications. It is important in the building of fuel cells. Palladium primarily comes from Russia.

Platinum

This metal is used primarily in high-tech lab equipment, which is important to many different types of industries. The number one platinum produced in the world as of 2010 reports is South Africa. A significant amount of platinum also comes from Russia.

Tantalum

This product probably isn’t one that you know by name. It is unfamiliar to most of us. And yet, we actually come in contact with it all of the time. That’s because this is used to aid in energy storage in small devices like mp3 players. About one fifth of al of the tantalum that is produced in the world comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), making it another one of those controversial minerals like cobalt and gold. It is worth noting that one third of the world’s tantalum used to come from Australia but the cheaper prices offered by DRC mines caused the mining industry in Australia to nearly come to an end.

Tin

Tin is used a diverse range of different consumer electronics. It’s right up there with cobalt, gold and tantalum as a conflict mineral that causes global problems in areas like the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tungsten

We all appreciate the vibrate feature of our mobile phones right? We like being able to silently know when someone is trying to contact us and we like that the people around us can silence those alerts! That feature is made possible from tungsten. Most of the world’s tungsten comes from China.

The places listed are the places that are primarily producing the metal or mineral discussed. However, other places do produce those things as well. China is an example of a place that produces many, many different types of metals and minerals. In fact, nearly ten of the most critical minerals in the world today are ones that can be found in China.

Source: The information in this article comes from a November 2010 Fast Company magazine article. The text is all original.

Comments

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  • profile image

    qwerty 

    4 years ago

    good

  • theframjak profile image

    theframjak 

    5 years ago from East Coast

    Very informative and interesting article. This reminds me how we all take for granted the variety of materials, technologies, effort, and logistics that go into the products we use daily. Thanks for sharing.

  • stephaniedas profile image

    Stephanie Das 

    6 years ago from Miami, US

    Very good info-- there was just an article in the washington post about conditions in factories that produce smartphones. Mining is another industry with a long history of abuse that we consumers should be aware of. Just like the Nike campaigns of the 90's, consumers do have the power to pressure companies into changing their practices.

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