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
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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)
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