Thermodynamic Rarity Assessment of Mobile Phone PCBs: A Physical Criticality Indicator in Times of Shortage

Entropy (Basel). 2022 Jan 8;24(1):100. doi: 10.3390/e24010100.


Rising prices in energy, raw materials, and shortages of critical raw materials (CRMs) for renewable energies or electric vehicles are jeopardizing the transition to a low-carbon economy. Therefore, managing scarce resources must be a priority for governments. To that end, appropriate indicators that can identify the criticality of raw materials and products is key. Thermodynamic rarity (TR) is an exergy-based indicator that measures the scarcity of elements in the earth's crust and the energy intensity to extract and refine them. This paper uses TR to study 70 Mobile Phone (MP) Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) samples. Results show that an average MP PCB has a TR of 88 MJ per unit, indicating their intensive use of valuable materials. Every year the embedded TR increases by 36,250 GWh worldwide -similar to the electricity consumed by Denmark in 2019- due to annual production of MP. Pd, Ta and Au embedded in MP PCBs worldwide between 2007 and 2021 contribute to 90% of the overall TR, which account for 75, 600 and 250 tones, respectively, and increasing by 11% annually. This, coupled with the short lifespan of MP, makes PCBs an important potential source of secondary resources.

Keywords: critical raw materials; mobile phones; printed circuit boards; resource scarcity; thermodynamic rarity.