Do you know what’s inside your smartphone?

What disassembly can tell us about electronics materials.
Do you know what’s inside your smartphone?

Consumer electronics have become an integral part of our everyday lives, leveraging technological innovation to transform the way we access and share information, education, and entertainment. However, this transformation has come at an environmental cost. High-tech functionality and appearance of electronics are enabled by a broad spectrum of materials, which may be scarce (cobalt and indium), hazardous (lead and mercury), or environmentally damaging to extract and refine (gold and platinum). The social, economic, and environmental dimensions of consumer electronic product use are compounded by rapid product turnover and planned obsolescence, leading to millions of devices discarded each year around the world.

To tackle these challenges, a wide array of sustainability initiatives have emerged in academic research and practice, including eco-design, material selection tools, life cycle assessment, reuse and remanufacturing, and recycling for material recovery. Yet one of the major barriers to apply and analyze such initiatives is lack of resolved data that describe the materials contained in electronics, particularly across the wide array of product designs that emerge over time. Obtaining such data is a multi-step process, with the first step being construction of a bill of materials (BOM) that describes the major materials and components in a product. Materials identified by the BOM can be further analyzed to determine elemental composition of specific materials that pose sustainability risks.

Our Scientific Data paper presents comprehensive BOMs for over 90 common consumer electronic products – from smartphones and smart thermostats to TVs and drones. These data were collected via product disassembly and physical material identification and mass measurements.  Product disassembly or “tear-down” is a complex process, particularly because manufacturers do not share information about product design, embedded components, or how to access internal parts and materials. Yet it was also a fascinating research experience, as each product presented unique challenges to material separation and identification.

One example is the Samsung Galaxy S6, a popular phone that was touted at the time of its introduction for unique design features like Gorilla Glass casing and display cover. The process of taking apart of the Galaxy S6 was laborious. A copious amount of adhesive was used to hold the components together, making it challenging to disassemble, both for our data collection purposes and for consumers who might want to repair and upgrade this product to keep it running longer. After extensive trial-and-error, aided with internet resources like and tools including a heat gun, suction cup, and the iOpener, we were able to disassemble the S6. While the photos below may make it seem like an easy task, disassembly took about an hour in total to pry apart the product to begin to access the components and materials contained inside.

  Photos by Dr. Shahana Althaf

The result of this extensive disassembly and data collection process is the dataset published here, which describes the mass and primary material makeup of each product. The data include quantities of bulk materials, such as steel, copper, and glass, as well as complex components, including flat-panel display screens, printed circuit boards, and lithium-ion batteries.  The motivation for compiling such information in a transparent database was to provide information relevant to decisions being made by stakeholders in the consumer electronics sector. For example, one set of data describe the mass of printed circuit boards found in a wide cross section of products.  Circuit board content is a key predictor of e-waste recycling profitability, as these components contain concentrated amounts of gold used in wires, connectors, and electrical contacts. Thus, these data can be used by recyclers or researchers to quantify the anticipated economic benefits of e-waste recycling for precious metal recovery and how these benefits change as product designs evolve over time.

The BOM data can also be used as inputs to environmental analysis methods, such as product life cycle assessment (LCA). LCA is a method used to quantify the net environmental impacts from “cradle-to-grave,” or in other words, from the point of material extraction, through manufacturing and product use, to ultimate disposal and waste management. The environmental community has made great strides in collecting data that describe life cycle inputs and outputs for specific processes, like manufacturing of circuit boards and the semiconductors and components that they contain. However, to use such information in a product LCA requires BOM data like that published here, which describe the mass of circuit boards found in the electronic device being analyzed.  Such studies are particularly relevant to non-profit and governmental agencies working to develop design and purchasing standards for electronics, whereby product BOM data can be used to calculate and communicate the benefits of alternative green design approaches.

The pace of innovation in the electronics sector is unlikely to slow, given the untapped potential of new technologies and consumer appetite for new devices and the functionality they provide. As such, sustainability analyses and solutions for consumer electronics will continue to be a global challenge, underscoring the importance and need for reliable BOM data. While the data presented here represent a snapshot of products at a particular point in time, the framework for disassembly and data reporting can be continually adapted and applied for new devices as they emerge. Our hope is that research will continue to shed new light on materials used by electronic products, now and as the industry continually evolves into the future.

Poster image credit: Alex Tong, Rochester Institute of Technology


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