Science & Tech

Inside your smartphone: analyzing the rare-earth elements

How so-called rare earth elements are powering our modern tech — and where to find them
  • Aug 17, 2021
  • 384 words
  • 2 minutes
Expand Image
Advertisement

There’s yttrium and lanthanum and cerium and terbium. Europium, gadolinium, dysprosium, neodymium…

You may not know the slightly more obscure elements featured in Tom Lehrer’s catchy jingle that has helped generations
of students memorize the periodic table of elements. But they’re likely in your pocket.

The average smartphone contains a number of these rare earth elements, known as the lanthanide series of the periodic table (yes, scientists, technically yttrium is a “transition metal,” but it’s often lumped in with the rare earth elements because its properties are similar). These elements bring the smart to the smartphone. The vibrant colours to the screen. The vibration to the ringtone. They’re also used in television and computer screens, automobiles, clean energy and aerospace tech.

They’re not all as rare as their name might suggest, although extracting them from the ground can be expensive. And due to their chemical properties, they’re not typically found concentrated in one place. Rare earth elements are classified as either “light” or “heavy” — the “light” ones are relatively abundant, while the “heavy” ones live up to their name. Heavy rare earth elements, such as terbium and dysprosium, are in limited supply — and the supply chain is dominated by China.

Canada is not yet a global producer of rare earth elements. But it has the potential to be, with an estimated 15 million tonnes of rare earth oxides in the ground and numerous advanced exploration projects. Saskatchewan has large deposits of neodymium, with the Hoidas Lake project possibly having the potential to supply 10 per cent of North American rare earth needs. And in the Northwest Territories, workers broke ground this past spring at the Nechalacho mine near Thor Lake, contracting the first Indigenous business to extract minerals on their own territory. The mine will not use chemicals to extract the elements on site; instead the ore will be sorted using advanced sensors and puffs of air. Scientists, meanwhile, are on the hunt for alternatives to satisfy the huge demand for these elements — and there may be many others but they haven’t been discovered.

Click on the tags to learn about the rare earth elements inside your smartphone. (Illustration: Kat Barqueiro)
Advertisement

Related Content

english Bay, Vancouver

Science & Tech

How Canada is preparing for the next big earthquake

The last megathrust earthquake to strike Canada was in 1700, and the clock is ticking. How we’re preparing for the impact.

  • 2809 words
  • 12 minutes

People & Culture

Welcome to Flat Earth 101*

*Do your own research

  • 1601 words
  • 7 minutes
An aurora dances in the night sky

Science & Tech

Solar to the max

For scientists and northern lights rubberneckers, 2013 promises to be a once-in-a-decade opportunity to experience the sun’s magnetic power at its height.

  • 2456 words
  • 10 minutes

Environment

Earth’s orbit has become a cosmic landfill

Michel Doyon, manager of flight and systems operations at the Canadian Space Agency, walks us through what space debris is and its impact on Canada

  • 1676 words
  • 7 minutes