What Raw Materials Are Used to Make Hardware in Computing Devices?
Andrew Wheeler posted on September 29, 2018 |

Did you ever wonder how many computers and computing devices there are in the world? According Gartner Research, there were 2 billion PCs in the world as of 2007. And this figure did not include handheld devices like tablets and smartphones. If you move forward in time 7 years to 2014, the number of connected computing devices exceeded the global population for the first time in history. The number of computing devices in use continues to rise to this day, where there are estimated to be about 8.5 billion and counting, according to GSMA Intelligence.

So, there are more computers and smartphones than there are people on this planet. That means there is a much greater number of hardware components. And they are made from a wide range of materials, including various metals, plastics and alloys. But what are they exactly? Where do they come from? Are any of the raw materials rare? Are any of the crucial materials running out? (Image courtesy of Lifehacker.)
So, there are more computers and smartphones than there are people on this planet. That means there is a much greater number of hardware components. And they are made from a wide range of materials, including various metals, plastics and alloys. But what are they exactly? Where do they come from? Are any of the raw materials rare? Are any of the crucial materials running out? (Image courtesy of Lifehacker.)

The raw materials that make up the manufactured hardware components which are then assembled into this huge number of computer electronics devices (smartphones, laptops, PCs, tablets, workstations) make up the most sophisticated and complex supply chain system in human history. This post will cover some of the major hardware components in computer electronics hardware and trace the materials and processes used to manufacture them, but it would take a huge tome to cover everything in great detail.

The Raw Materials Begin with Silica Sand

Starting with the obvious is silicon dioxide, which is mined from the earth as Silica sand or quartz from locations like Cape Flattery in Australia. It is among the most plentiful elements on Earth, and is used in a massive array of products: it’s one of three key ingredients in ferro-concrete (used in the majority of global construction projects), it’s used for glassmaking, chemical production, metal production, paints and coatings, water production, as proppant (frac sand) for oil and gas recovery, for solar panels and for computer electronics.

From Sand to Microchips and Memory Cards: The Integrated Circuits of CPUs, GPUs, and RAM

Silicon is derived from quartzite, which is mined from the Earth in various locations at various purities. Quartz is melted and crystalized by seed crystals, pulled out into a long cylinder and cut by diamond saw into wafers, which are distributed to various “fabs” (factories) for making different computer components, including those for making SSD memory, (mentioned in the beginning of this post).

Inside a clean room at Intel, where microprocessors are assembled and inspected in clean rooms that require a degree of sanitation one thousand times greater than an operating room. (Image courtesy of Intel.)
Inside a clean room at Intel, where microprocessors are assembled and inspected in clean rooms that require a degree of sanitation one thousand times greater than an operating room. (Image courtesy of Intel.)

The high purity silicon is bathed in hydrogen peroxide and sulfuric acid first to clean the wafers. Next, it is bathed in deionized water and sulfuric acid to remove any particulate matter. After the second bath, the oxide layer is removed with deionized water and hydrofluoric acid. The wafer is finally bathed one last time in hydrochloric acid, hydrogen peroxide and deionized water.


The high purity silicon is bathed in hydrogen peroxide and sulfuric acid first to clean the wafers. Next, it is bathed in deionized water and sulfuric acid to remove any particulate matter. After the second bath, the oxide layer is removed with deionized water and hydrofluoric acid. The wafer is finally bathed one last time in hydrochloric acid, hydrogen peroxide and deionized water. (Image courtesy of Open Air Publishing.)
The high purity silicon is bathed in hydrogen peroxide and sulfuric acid first to clean the wafers. Next, it is bathed in deionized water and sulfuric acid to remove any particulate matter. After the second bath, the oxide layer is removed with deionized water and hydrofluoric acid. The wafer is finally bathed one last time in hydrochloric acid, hydrogen peroxide and deionized water. (Image courtesy of Open Air Publishing.)

To speed up the performance of their CPUs, IBM and Intel began using hafnium, a rare metal that is also used for control rods of nuclear reactors, which are used to control the fission rate of uranium and plutonium.

Hafnium is much rarer than gold, but gold is more expensive. If an element has more industrial uses (and is also prized in jewelry), it is more expensive. In computing devices, gold is used in small amounts for plating on pads and pins of processors. (Image courtesy of Theodore Gray.)
Hafnium is much rarer than gold, but gold is more expensive. If an element has more industrial uses (and is also prized in jewelry), it is more expensive. In computing devices, gold is used in small amounts for plating on pads and pins of processors. (Image courtesy of Theodore Gray.)

Most people have some idea number of transistors etched onto each microchip (CPU) has doubled roughly 18 months as described by Moore’s Law, providing invaluable metrics that spurred the personal computer and smartphone revolution. People are not as likely to know that silicon’s electrical properties are semi-conductive. However, when silicon is doped with a small number of certain elements, its conductivity skyrockets.

Pure silicon (just one out of every 10 billion atoms can be an impurity) provides the substrate for most integrated circuits. Silicon dioxide makes up both insulators and dielectric material for the integrated circuit’s capacitors. Dopants include phosphorus, arsenic, gallium and boron. Aluminum or gold thin wire leads connect the integrated circuit chip to its mounting package which is made from different materials like ceramics or plastics. (Image courtesy of Intel.)
Pure silicon (just one out of every 10 billion atoms can be an impurity) provides the substrate for most integrated circuits like the closeup of one pictured above. Silicon dioxide makes up both insulators and dielectric material for the integrated circuit’s capacitors. Dopants include phosphorus, arsenic, gallium and boron. Aluminum or gold thin wire leads connect the integrated circuit chip to its mounting package which is made from different materials like ceramics or plastics. (Image courtesy of Intel.)

GPUs are silicon layered with tantalum and palladium transistors and capacitors for better storage on a smaller chip, which is perhaps the most interesting of the materials used for a GPU and RAM cards are made from a mind-boggling array of chemicals and copper, boron, cobalt, tungsten, for starters.

GPUs like NVIDIA’s new Quadro RTX 6000 are silicon layered with tantalum and palladium transistors and capacitors for better storage on a smaller chip, which is perhaps the most interesting of the materials used for a GPU and RAM cards are made from a mind-boggling array of chemicals and copper, boron, cobalt, tungsten, for starters. There are many more elements that go into this sophisticated piece of hardware. (Image courtesy of NVIDIA).
GPUs like NVIDIA’s new Quadro RTX 6000 are silicon layered with tantalum and palladium transistors and capacitors for better storage on a smaller chip, which is perhaps the most interesting of the materials used for a GPU and RAM cards are made from a mind-boggling array of chemicals and copper, boron, cobalt, tungsten, for starters. There are many more elements that go into this sophisticated piece of hardware. (Image courtesy of NVIDIA).

Personal computers, workstations, and laptops are made from similar materials as smartphones—after all a smartphone is just a miniature computer—from an array of plastics, alloys, metals and others. Though there is a wide variation among materials used to manufacture these types of computers, there are many common elements including copper, gold, aluminum, zinc, iron and nickel.

The total value of raw materials in an iPhone 6 is USD 1.03, according to a breakdown performed by mining consultant David Michaud in 2017. (Image courtesy of 911 Metallurgist).
The total value of raw materials in an iPhone 6 is USD 1.03, according to a breakdown performed by mining consultant David Michaud in 2017. (Image courtesy of 911 Metallurgist).

Hard Disk Materials

SSDs

Solid State Drives (SSDs) start as wafers of silicon distributed to “fabs” (factories) built specifically for making SSD memory. After the cleaning process, the silicon wafer is ready for NAND flash memory (specific materials and processes for NAND flash memory production are well protected by intellectual property regimes at the companies who design, use and maintain them.) Hundreds of trillions of transistors in the circuit design are etched onto the circuit board using potassium hydroxide (also known as caustic potash), layered with a photoresist chemical and cured part-by-part.

Solid State Drives like this new HP Z Turbo Drive PCIe SSD are incredibly complex pieces of hardware when you try and reduce each process and component to its barest elements and materials. Used for HP’s new Z Workstations, it helps reduce boot up times, speed up computations and graphics response times in various engineering software for product design. (Image courtesy of HP.)
Solid State Drives like this new HP Z Turbo Drive PCIe SSD are incredibly complex pieces of hardware when you try and reduce each process and component to its barest elements and materials. Used for HP’s new Z Workstations, it helps reduce boot up times, speed up computations and graphics response times in various engineering software for product design. (Image courtesy of HP.)

The caustic potash reacts with the silicon, forming an oxide layer of silicon dioxide, which forms a layer of non-conductive material which sets apart other layers of the circuit. The chip then receives more conductive layers of copper and aluminum.

Though all of this work is done for the silicon chip of the SSD, the plastic printed circuit board—made of an epoxy polymer plate reinforced with glass and printing with copper wiring—is the more dominant material.

Using tin solder and gold wiring, the NAND flash chips, which are covered in plastic casings for protection, are connected to the PCB board, which is then moved into an aluminum casing. The case is placed in a plastic bag (manufactured from plastic polyethylene terephthalate) with antistatic properties which is then put into a cardboard box for shipping.

The materials used in NAND flash chips are protected intellectual property from manufacturers like Intel, Samsung, Toshiba and SanDisk, so it is difficult to find out more specifically what materials are used.

HDDs

The HDD evolved from the DAT format from the 1980s, which both read and write data to magnetic media. Magnetic disks use magnetic tape which is an inexpensive plastic film filled with iron oxide filled with chromium dioxide, but the platter of a hard disk drive is a plain disk made from metal.

Aluminum is lightweight and non-magnetic but lacks the necessary hardness to work correctly. Instead, an alloy of aluminum and magnesium is used along with elements like silicon, copper and zinc. There are five or more substances in the blank platter, which spins extremely fast. Since the read/write head will hover millionths of a millimeter above it, it has to be polished perfectly flat. Aluminum alloys for hard disk platters can’t be polished to the degree necessary, so NiP, an alloy of nickel and phosphorous is used instead. Nickel is ferromagnetic, phosphorous in non-metallic, but NiP is largely inert with all the material properties of a metal.

The “soft magnetic underlayer” of the HDD, as it’s known, used to be made mostly of nickel, cobalt and iron. As demand for storage capacity increased over the years, these metals were increasingly replaced by the rarer and more expensive metals platinum and ruthenium.

Ruthenium ranks 74th out of the 90 naturally occurring elements on this planet in terms of scarcity, but it is less expensive than platinum, which is more valuable as a catalytic agent in global chemical industry and its use as a catalytic converter in the automotive industry.

Ruthenium is a beautiful silvery metallic element, picture here in its gas grown phase. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Ruthenium is a beautiful silvery metallic element, picture here in its gas grown phase. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Chromium, cobalt and platinum are the elements that make up what’s known as the “true recording layer” of the HDD. Chromium (when found as natural deposits) and platinum are a combination of expensive and rare. The read/write head of an HDD connects to an arm assembly which moves around and accesses data tracks on the hard drive’s platter. On the arm is a wire coil that moves through a magnetic field when electrical current runs through it. The magnet which provides the magnetic field for the wire coil on the arm is made from majority neodymium, mixed with boron and iron. This magnet lifts over one thousand times its own weight.

Printed Circuit Boards (PCB)

The PCBs used in motherboards are made from an insulating sheet material layered with conducting copper tracks that also bookend either side. The copper tracks connect components, and the insulating sheet gives the PCB material strength and protects the layers of connects from crossing paths. The components of GPUs are held in by aluminum and copper, and tin, gold, silver and zinc are used for switches and connections. ABS thermoplastic or a woven fiberglass material bonded by epoxy resin called FR-4 are the most common materials used in PCB boards, though ABS is more preferable because it is way more recyclable.

Resistors


Electrical paths made of ruthenium oxide have a lower electrical conductivity than other metals, which is why it’s used for resistors.
Electrical paths made of ruthenium oxide have a lower electrical conductivity than other metals, which is why it’s used for resistors.

Resistors are components that resist the flow of different electrical currents, crucial in designing and manufacturing computer hardware as well as in many other forms of electronics.

The metal electrodes attached at each end are made from a metal alloy comprised of platinum, palladium and silver. (Image courtesy of Colourbox.)
The metal electrodes attached at each end are made from a metal alloy comprised of platinum, palladium and silver. (Image courtesy of Colourbox.)

Capacitors

The element tantalum has unusual properties that make it well suited for use in capacitors. It is a rare earth metal and is also known as a “conflict material”, meaning that it is abundant in troubled areas. In this case, tantalum is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa.

It is a thousand times more abundant than ruthenium.

Capacitors allow AC currents to pass while blocking a DC current. These tiny electrical components are soldered to the motherboard and alter DC voltage to match other components like graphics cards or hard drives for example, and they also hold or store an electric charge for use at a later time. (Image courtesy of Today’s Circuits.)
Capacitors allow AC currents to pass while blocking a DC current. These tiny electrical components are soldered to the motherboard and alter DC voltage to match other components like graphics cards or hard drives for example, and they also hold or store an electric charge for use at a later time. (Image courtesy of Today’s Circuits.)

Solder

Solder used in computer electronics was approximately 60 percent tin and 40 percent lead around the world, but it was banned in consumer goods by the European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directives, which became effective law in 2006. (Image courtesy of Alfatron.)
Solder used in computer electronics was approximately 60 percent tin and 40 percent lead around the world, but it was banned in consumer goods by the European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directives, which became effective law in 2006. (Image courtesy of Alfatron.)

Today if solder is not made with lead in it, and there is a tax incentive to use alternatives in the United States (but it isn’t illegal) lead-free solder is made from a combination of these metals: copper, silver, bismuth, indium, zinc, antimony, and traces of other metals.

Bottom Line

Though it would take up an encyclopedia’s worth of space to cover all the hardware components used in workstations, tablets, smartphones, PCs, laptops as well as document their histories, the raw materials used to make them come from 50 of our 90 naturally occurring elements here on Earth. And some, like hafnium are rapidly dwindling in supply.

If you’re interested in learning more about computer hardware components and want to get your hands dirty, check out projects like this one on ProjectBoard.












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