Mineral smartphones: Rare earths

Smartphones and other electronics are the mines of tomorrow. More than 40 different elements are in the innards of the phone you have on your pocket or on your desk right now.


Periodic table with the elements used on smartphones. Click on the picture to enlarge.
Periodic table with the elements used on smartphones. Click on the picture to enlarge.

Most of them are commonplace metals such as tin or iron. On the other hand, not-so-common elements called rare earth elements (REE) (coloured green on the previous periodic table) build the base of colour screens and cameras on your iPhone or Android phone. They are also widely used in magnets, modern alloys and high tech.


These rare earths are scarce on our planet and difficult to obtain in great quantitites. This is also true for non rare earths such as lithium or tantalum, all of them priority targets for mining companies. In the case of rare earth elements nowadays, they are extracted from two minerals, bastnäsite and parisite. These two are mostly being mined on China, who has the world’s largest reserves of REE.

Overview of rare earth production in 2014. Bastnäsite and parisite can be seen beside the chart.
Overview of worldwide rare earth element production in 2014. Bastnäsite and parisite can be seen besides the chart.

Therefore, as high-tech applications will be more common in the future, the use for rare earths will likely be increasing too. Countries forced to import REE will have to look for an alternative, as reserves on Earth are limited. I see two alternatives: Better recycling or prospecting outside of our planet (moon mines, asteroid mining, etc.).

To sum it up: We carry a hoard of valuable elements on your pocket or bag each day, and this technology uses almost half of the available chemical elements there are. Wow!

Read more on:

  1. Gizmodo: The Metals In Your Phone Aren’t Just Rare; They’re Irreplaceable
  2. Scientific article where they grinded 80 phones and analysed them.
  3. Geology.com: REE and their uses.

Finding where you are in 3 words

Geopositioning gets better and better, but more precise doesn’t mean simpler. GPS coordinates give you the option to locate a place within a meter or less, but the drawback is having to remember long numbers for latitude and longitude. You can always pass on this information with a post address, but what if you are out in the wild?

An english start-up figured out a way to get positioned everywhere in the world using combinations of 3 words. I read about it on techcrunch.com, but you can check out the project in what3words.com. Go use their map to choose a point to your liking; it gives you the coordinates of a 3 meter by 3 meter square wherever you are: Three words in your language.

Mount Vesuvius has a very happy-go-lucky name
Mount Vesuvius has a very happy-go-lucky name. A pity it is not “Lovely daytime, fellow”.

I think this is brilliant. Aside the human-oriented aspects like post addresses for everyone (they even got a awarded for their innovation), it can be used for geology. Here are two reasons why:

  1. Resolution: The 3×3 meters square is precise enough to mark rocky outcrops or interesting cave-ins on a mapping day.
  2. Simplicity: When describing the geology on a field notebook it’s easier to write 3 words than note down the GPS coordinates of a point, so you can have all recorded in one place for future reference.

One thing, though: Be careful with this system when using it for your job, as some 3 word combinations are silly. So that maybe tones down the professionality of what you wanted to convey, but identifying places like this will make you remember them more easily, right? Workaholic projection intros, for example, is better than “beach number 2”.

Try captioning a photo on a stratigraphy page like this, I dare you.
Try captioning a photo on a stratigraphy page like this, I dare you. By the way, that’s the real geopositioning of a granite outcrop.

On a more personal note, I’d recommend you to go see the geology at lurched.outdoes.circuit. The service now only needs to get popular to be really useful; I recommend you go try it, and find it new uses for your line of job.

A worthy trip: Dinosaur footprints in Portugal

Dinosaur footprints! Amazing they survived until today. We’re talking about footprints on mud that were printed millions of years ago, but have been kept safe for all this time. That fact alone makes my blood run hot, so once I heard there were some nearby I had to check them out.

Overview of the site: An abandoned limestone quarry
Overview of the site: An abandoned limestone quarry

And what a blast it was! It’s worth the drive to Portugal just to see the fossilized tracksite. The place is 10 km south of Fatima, where there’s this big catholic sanctuary, so getting a place to sleep shouldn’t be a concern. If you want to make something more out of your trip there, visit the Batalha monastery too, another impressive landmark.

A small map of the surroundings. Click on it to get directions via Google Maps.

But enough with directions, let’s get to the fun part: About 175 million years ago sauropods (big herbivorous dinosaurs) were walking the earth. Eventually they walked through a muddy plain near a shore where the village of Boirio is right now. This plain got flooded by the nearby sea, and more mud was deposited on top of the tracksite; since then petrification has preserved the prints until our time. They got uncovered during quarrying of the rocks above them and were protected by the portuguese: Well done indeed.

Sequence of events, from dino to fossil footprint.

If you’re still not convinced about the visit, I’ve read here it’s considered one of the most important sauropod footprint sites in the world. You can read more about the Fatima dinosaur tracksite on these links:

And here’s my try on interpreting the trackways, the direction of movement and where the fingers were:

Pathway with 5 footprints. One has its surface marked in red and explained.
Pathway with 5 footprints. One has its surface marked in red and explained.