The Elements of Power in the Rare-Metal Age – by David S. Abraham (Bloomberg News – October 21, 2015)

“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share — no chance,” Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer told a CEO forum before Steve Jobs released the iPhone in June 2007.

By the end of the first week of sales, however, most storeroom shelves were bare; Apple and its AT&T partner sold hundreds of thousands of phones. The company was on its way to taking more than 20 percent of the smartphone market within just a few months.

Only eight years later, we forget what a revolution the iPhone was. It became the first mainstream product to rely on a multi-touch glass screen, allowing the tapping, sliding and pinching that are now second nature for writing emails, determining directions and hailing a cab. As Steve Jobs himself said, “It works like magic.”

But in the initial hubbub little attention was paid to the iPhone’s most remarkable characteristic. The reason such a powerful device can sit comfortably in the palm of your hand is that it relies on nearly half the elements on the planet.

The magic in Jobs’s glass screen was due to a dash of the rare metal indium, which serves as the invisible link, a transparent conductor between the phone and your finger. A dusting of europium and terbium provides brilliant red and green hues on the screen, specks of tantalum regulate power within the phone, and lithium stores the power that makes the phone mobile. Rare metals are also crucial to manufacturing the iPhone’s components: Cerium buffs the glass smooth to the molecular level.

The iPhone was far from the first product to rely on rare metals. But Jobs’s drive for smaller, more powerful gadgets led his company to increasingly harvest the complete palate of materials on the periodic table and deliver them to the masses.

The iPhone spurred new industries, including mobile apps and tablets, making the power of rare metals indispensable not just in smartphones but in a myriad of new technologies. Jobs not only reinvented the phone; he helped reinvent the world’s resource supply lines.

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