Scientists pulverize smartphones into powder to see what's inside

The 'Will it Blend?' marketing campaign is notorious for destroying gadgets, but scientists have taken things a step further by completely pulverizing smartphones using heavy duty blenders. This process involves more than merely breaking apart a phone — the researchers are rendering them into tiny pieces, in some cases reducing iPhones and similar handsets into piles of fine, metallic powders.

The research project comes out of the University of Plymouth, where scientists are blending whole smartphones into literal powder, then analyzing that powder to determine what, exactly, goes into making these handsets. The project is being funded by the Sustainable Earth Institute's Creative Associates program.

Around 1.4 billion phones are produced globally every year, increasing demand for rare minerals and other materials used in the construction process. This new study, which involves conducing a chemical analysis on the powdered smartphones, sheds light on the quantity of rare minerals in these devices, as well as 'conflict' elements and other materials.

How exactly are the phones processed? According to a release from the university, the researchers blend a smartphone until it is broken down into powder, then mix it with an oxidizer called sodium peroxide at nearly 500C. From there, the scientists are able to chemically analyze the substance to figure out exactly which elements are present.

In one test, the team found the tested phone contained multiple 'critical' elements, including tungsten, cobalt, neodymium, molybdenum, praseodymium, gold, and silver. The study reveals that a smartphone may have 100 times more gold or 10 times the amount of tungsten than what would be designated 'high-grade' by a mineral geologist.

The work helps put into perspective the materials required to produce a single handset, as well as emphasizing the need to recycle phones that are no longer usable.