Spelunking the Cell Phone

To determine the contents of a mobile, without the aid of a reverse-engineering company like iSuppli (student discount price for the report I need: 3200 USD), I did the dismantling myself.  The local Verizon store was nice enough to give me a few very dead phones, which I proceeded to dismantle and weighed the components to get a close enough estimate of what’s inside to do a fair LCA.

A mobile phone, especially a small one like a Motorola RAZR, is really an exercise in packaging design: how to cram in all the necessary circuitry, and as big a battery as possible, while keeping the form factor to something that reasonably pleases the management and doesn’t deviate too far from the designers intentions—although most phones seem to have been designed by committee (you know the joke), rather than by Naoto Fukasawa. 

Behold the ‘potato phone’ 


it’s pretty elegant and has this wonderful tactile-ness, the shape of the shell resembling the squared-off facets of a potato peeled with a knife.  Man, Naoto Fukasawa is cool.

Regardless, there’s a lot to cram in there.  I dismantled a Nokia candy-bar phone, rescued from the e-waste bin and here’s what it’s made of:


DSC_0801 plastic shell, looks like polycarbonate, ABS, and silicone or other synthetic rubber

 DSC_0811Keypad button pad, mainboard, joystick, and chassis: aluminum, printed circuit board, button switch covers are possibly softened PVC

DSC_0813 keypad: silicone and ABS or PC

DSC_0809 screen: glass, liquid crystal element, circuit board, aluminum and ABS chassisDSC_0810 reverse of display – with camera (mid-right)

DSC_0812  circuit board back side, with shielding: printed circuit board, gold printed circuitry, CCD camera, aluminum shielding, connectors, copper wiring

DSC_0800 Lithium-ion battery: lithium polymer chemistry electrolyte, steel canister cell shielding, ABS plastic shell, copper interconnects

DSC_0803 DSC_0807 Back shell: polycarbonate (it says so)

DSC_0805 screws: blackened mild steel


With all these materials, most of which are not easily recycled, the more than 1 billion cell phones in circulation make for a pretty hefty impact at end of life, and made a pretty large impact in their creation as well.

While the majority of the innards are electronics and battery, the impact can be reduced by designing for disassembly (which requires human labor input), and a change from the current mode of ‘recycling’ where the phone is shredded first then put through a materials recovery process, which mostly recovers the basic metals (recovery of exotic metals still is infeasible—the tantalum in your phone ends up as contaminants in the recovered metals.

Using recyclable materials instead of ones which degrade is a pretty basic choice: the aluminum and glass shell of the iPhone is eminently recyclable, as opposed to polycarbonate which cannot be recycled to the same polymer level—recycled PC (where it is recycled) usually ends up as a filler plastic for things like bumpers and packing materials.


One thought on “Spelunking the Cell Phone

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s