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.

About Programming Geology: The banner


Only having a Logo to identify this blog would be boring, so what better than a cool banner to go with it? You can see it below the title of the page and on a greenish colour surrounding the main frame of the web.

I created the image on Photoshop following this nice tutorial on Design Shack. The motifs I selected for the background are, of course, programming geology-related:

On the programming-computers side, two icons: The braces, used in the code of some programming languages  (C++ comes to mind) who stands for the software; on the other side, the integrated circuit, part of every computer component, symbolizes the hardware working behind the code.

The curly braces and the integrated circuit

On the geology side, three icons: The ammonites, a recognizable fossil, serves as a call out to the palaeontologists; the geological hammer is one of the most precious possessions of a field geologist (I talked about it on a specific post about it); finally, folds represent the structural geology, the study of the ground, and tectonics.

From left to right: The geo-hammer, an ammonites fossil and folds

The folding structure used for the third symbol above is a digitalization of the O Courel syncline in western Galicia, Spain: Layers of rock stacked like lassagna were compressed until they bent like a paper sheet would. This fold was created on the time of the Hercynian orogeny (approximately 350 million years old) and again deformed during the Alpine orogeny (around 70 million years old). So, an initially upside down fold was tumbled to its side, looking as gorgeous as one can see below. You can read more on my post on the O Courel fold.

Original fold image
O Courel fold

There are many beautiful geological landscapes around Galicia, and this is one of them. I’ll be making a post about my trip there in the future, but in the meanwhile, you can read a bit more about it on the Luar na fraga blog (in spanish with well-taken photos).

I hope the symbols are to your liking! I’m open to suggestions on more geology or computers stuff. Send me an e-mail or contact me via any of the social networks using the buttons on the right side of the page. Or leave a comment below.