Where did your laptop come from?

I seem to get through laptops at a rate of about one every 18-24 months. It's usually something trivial that forces me to buy a new one, a broken key on the keyboard (backspace and the letter "E" mostly) or a screen failure (gets hard to edit photos when there is more than about 10% pixels failing). Sometimes it's a dead motherboard, a crack in the circuitry. The lithium batteries fail on about that timescale too and are so expensive to replace that if two or more things need fixing or replacing, the cost of downtime plus the cost of components and a repair agent usually make it economically more viable to simply buy a new one. That usually means getting a more powerful CPU, a bigger hard drive and more memory, to boot, as it were.

I always feel guilty ditching an old machine and usually try to salvage the hard drive as an extra external backup unit, the RAM can sometimes be re-used and the failed battery can be sent for recycling. But, meanwhile, I have a stack of 2 or 3 dead laptop shells in my office cupboard awaiting an opportune time for me to take them to the recycling centre with a pile of other broken electrical goods to help us comply with WEEE regulations.

The trouble with laptops is that they are composite devices and contain myriad different elements each one of which is essential to their esoteric functionality and ultimate failure. Aside from the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in the plastics, polymers and other organic components there is germanium, terbium, magnesium, rhodium, yttrium, barium, cobalt, lithium, vanadium and so on. Listing the ingredients begins to sound like that classic Tom Lehrer song beloved of all of us chemists and materials scientists, I hope, The Elements.

Now, my latest laptop had its virtual origins in Ireland, but the label on its underside tells me it was "Made in China", its component parts may well have been produced there and it was most likely assembled there before being shipped via numerous stopping points to Cambridge, here in East Anglia. But, one can see from a fascinating elemental map graphic that for a typical laptop many of the materials from which the machine is made are indeed sourced in China.

However, any beryllium it contains may well have come from California, aluminum from Canada, and the bismuth from Mexico. Arsenic and copper may come from Chile and the indium and silver from Peru. Guinea is for gallium and Congo for the cobalt. Cadmium, chromium, manganese and platinum are most likely sourced in South Africa and the lithium in Zimbabwe. The mercury probably comes from Khaidarkan, the vanadium from Kazakhstan and the antimony from Tajikistan. The tin? Indonesia. The titanium and nickel? Australia. The ruthenium? Russia. The list goes on.

All of these materials are of finite supply and how quickly they dwindle in coming years is becoming a point of increasing concern. Especially given the politics of many of the regions that have the mineral ores for some of the rarest and yet important elements. This is the only source of which the news has come to Harvard, there may be many others, but they haven't been "discarvared"...

David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".