The chemistry of an iPhone

Apple’s Steve Jobs has a reputation for responding personally to some of the presumably millions of emails he receives. (Apparently, he does it on a weekly basis, which smacks of controlled PR campaign, if you ask me). One from “Derick” published on Wired and elsewhere purportedly asked about the chemistry of the iPhone 4.

Derick was supposedly reluctant to spend money on the latest smart phone from Apple without being reassured that the minerals used in its construction were of ethical source and not from a conflict zone. Given the “sudden” discovery of trillions of dollars of potential mining for precious metals and other minerals in Afghanistan, this seems rather too timely a question, to be honest.

Unfortunately, Jobs could not, it seems, reassure Derick of the provenance of the various minerals used in the innards and shell of the iPhone. This is what Jobs had to say:

“Yes. We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict few [sic] materials. But honestly there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it’s a very difficult problem.”

Wired reports that the letter from Derick was actually written in response to a NYT item on warfare in Congo, a country that sells minerals to manufacturers of cellphones, computers and gaming devices; “conflict minerals”, they’ve been dubbed.

While it’s all very well for Jobs to brush off this query with the glib remark that it is impossible to determine the exact source of any given mineral, I think mass spectrometrists and experts in isotope ratios in particular would probably beg to differ.

Indeed, researchers have used isotope ratios to identify sources contributing to paediatric lead poisoning in Peru. They have identified sources of ground water and ground water nitrate in relation to pesticide residues. They have used them as an indicator of the source of calcium for regolith carbonates. They have also used them to prove that lead from Carthaginian and Roman Spanish mines is present in Greenland Ice dating from 600 BC to 300 AD.

Given the limited number of mines currently producing specific minerals, I am pretty sure that if Jobs employed an radio-chemist, he could identify where the suppliers to his component manufacturers were sourcing their minerals, with a fair degree of accuracy. Whether anything would be done about that is a different matter.

Research Blogging IconRosman, K., Chisholm, W., Hong, S., Candelone, J., & Boutron, C. (1997). Lead from Carthaginian and Roman Spanish Mines Isotopically Identified in Greenland Ice Dated from 600 B.C. to 300 A.D.

Environmental Science & Technology, 31 (12), 3413-3416 DOI: 10.1021/es970038k

Apple previously responded to criticism of the materials it used in its products from an environmental perspective.

Author: David Bradley

Post by David Bradley Science Writer. You can get in touch with David via email or check out his CV on the site.

2 thoughts on “The chemistry of an iPhone”

  1. Fascinating! I’m actually impressed that Apple requires the certification. Yes, it’s just a piece of paper, but it’s a step.

    Can you imagine the discussion behind closed doors that led to that paperwork?

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