Inspect a gadget and find treasure

Scientific calling: Students dismantled old mobile phones to discover the minerals and materials that go into making them.
Scientific calling: Students dismantled old mobile phones to discover the minerals and materials that go into making them.

TRASH can be worth cash – as Sheffield students have been discovering as part of a science project with a difference.

What’s in My Stuff? has been finding out which rare and valuable materials may be lurking in everyday gadgets we may throw away without a second thought.

Sheffield Hallam students jumped at the chance to call in at a pop-up field lab to investigate items like discarded mobile phones.

Undergraduates took the phones apart with the help of scientists in the university City Campus atrium.

They found out mobile phones contain over 40 chemical elements and hundreds of components, including rare and precious metals only found in certain parts of the world.

What’s In My Stuff? is a Sheffield Hallam research project which brings together science and art with the aim of raising awareness about the chemical elements that make up the objects almost everyone owns and uses.

It asks the question, ‘Why do we discard things that are so rare and precious?’

The project explores issues around sustainability, recycling and growing concerns about the scarcity and ethical sourcing of minerals and materials.

People who came along to the field lab were asked initially what elements they thought were in a mobile phone, and the answers they came up with were surprising.

“Many people knew plastics and various metals are in phones, but few people realised there is platinum, silver, gold and even palladium in there too,” said Dr Hywel Jones, from Hallam’s Materials and Engineering Research Institute.

“Then there are the elements most people have never heard of such as tantalum in electronic components, neodymium in the magnets of the speakers and indium in the touch screens.

“There is also over £1 worth of gold in each phone. If you consider that around one billion mobile phones are sold across the world each year, that’s a lot of gold! In fact it would form a four-foot cube, weighing 35 tonnes.

“Every hour of every day over 1,000 mobile phones are replaced in the UK alone, and it is also estimated there are over 90 million unused mobile phones lying around in people’s homes.”