What an iphone is actually made of?

What an iphone is actually made of? According to a report recently released by Apple iphone is actually made by a list of materials like glass, stainless steel, plastic and some other materials. However for the most important component of an iphone, the circuit board, only very few detail information was released by that report. From our project research we find that the production process of these circuit boards actually involved the uses of a lot of minerals including cassiterite, wolfarmite, coltan and also gold which are originated from western Africa. Other than gold (which is already a metal by itself), those three others minerals are needed to be further extracted to obtain valuable metals for the production of circuit board. Many of these metals have very high value due to their unique properties. Unfortunately also due to their high value, some of the minerals was mined and smuggled by some military group in western Africa in order to support their own military activities and regional conflicts. In recent decades, nearly 7 million people in western Africa were killed by the conflicts indirectly supported by the revenue created by the mining industry, especially the Democratic Republic of Congo where a lot of coltan mines located. And so in recent years some people have started comparing the issues of blood diamond with coltan and other minerals originated in DR Congo. Some have even started calling this kind of minerals as so-called “conflict minerals”. In the following part, several types of these minerals will be briefly introduced.

L: Cassiterite, R: Wolfarmite

The first one to be introduced here is cassiterite, which is a mineral used to extracted tin. Tin is a metal that can be melted easily and so it’s usually used for purposes like soldering in the circuit boards (soldering means melting down a metal to join several pieces of metallic surface). Wolfarmite is used for the extraction of tungsten, which is an important component to make a cell phone vibrate. Gold is a very good conductive metal and can be used to coat the electric wires in a circuit board. And finally coltan which is a mineral used to extract metals niobium & tantalum. Tantalum is an important metal due to its ability to store electrical charge. It’s used for the production of tantalum capacitors.

After being extracted the minerals need to be processed through a long chain of companies before finally incorporated into a circuit board. Under globalization different stages of coltan processing are specialized in different companies and their plants are scattered all over the world. Here coltan will be used as an example to illustrate the supply chain of a mineral from the mines to the circuit board of an iphone. Coltan mining is usually carried out by artisanal miners in DR Congo and the mining sites are usually located in forest and rivers in Kivu (a region in the eastern side of the republic). After mining process by artisan miners the coltan are usually being sold in the region and transported through trading towns and large cities and finally they are transported out of DR Congo to nearby countries like Tazania and Kenya (many of them are also smuggled out of the country by the rebellion military groups. These groups manipulate the coltan trade in order to obtain revenue to support their activities in the area). The minerals are then exported by ship from Africa through the ports of Tazania and Kenya to coltan processing plants in East Asia. For example Cabot, a Japanese corporation is one of the largest coltan refinery companies in the world. (While for other metals and minerals some maybe located in africa or nearby regions. For example Uganda has set up gold refinery plant for congo gold recently) In the refinery process coltan is refined into other materials like niobium & tantalum. The tantalum will be sold to other capacitor manufacturing plants for the production of capacitors. (Hitachi & Sanyo are some examples of the tantalum capacitor producers). After that the tantalum capacitor will be further sold to circuit board assemblers for the production of PCB (examples include Foxconn & Jabil). Finally at the end of the supply chain the PCB will be sold to electronic manufactures like Nokia, HP & Apple. In the case of Apple, the PCB which is originated from Congolese coltan will finally be assembled into the circuit boards of iphones.



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