207 (31.01.19)


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20 CRITICAL TRADE ROUTES

11. California, U.S.

How $54bn of iPhone sales are kept going by one mine in California

In the California desert, 100 miles from Los Angeles, a fleet of $3m dump trucks trundle their way around one of America's largest mines. Owned by Rio Tinto, it is the world's biggest borax operation: trucks dump 25 million tonnes of ore every year onto conveyors that disappear into a plant, crushing and refining it down into 1 million tonnes of crystals, creating a white powder essential to everyday life. Borax is one of seven micronutrients that greenery cannot live without: it pumps sugar round a plant, helping shoots sprout. Without borax, plants cannot flower or germinate. Almonds and avocados, two of California's biggest exports, both need large amounts, and farmers buy it on bulk. But it also goes into one of California’s other great exports, the iPhone. One of the mine's top buyers is Corning Inc., a New York-based glassmaker that has produced screens for 6 billion smartphones. Its glass doesn’t scratch and can survive being dropped. Fed into factories in China, borax adds thermal shock resistance: by melting it with silica at 2,300 degrees, Corning has made every window used by NASA, handling the freezing conditions of space and the heat of re-entering the atmosphere. In an iPhone, tiny quantities of borax stop the glass melting, cracking or coming unstuck when the phone overheats. Corning has dozens of well-stocked factories, feeding into Apple's ultra-lean supply chain. Adding in mine stocks and shipping from Los Angeles to Shanghai and it only takes six months to turn rock in the California desert into a new iPhone. Corning is meanwhile working on new bendable glass for foldable phones. “Our products are often called the invisible heroes,” says Bold Baatar, who oversees Rio's borax division. “They are in everything around us, without us even knowing.”

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167 days

From mine storage domes to the consumer's pocket, it takes less than 6 months to turn rock in the California desert into a new iPhone

1m

Rio's borax production of 1m tonnes per annum is bought in bulk by almond and avocado growers, but also goes into glassmaking

$131m

Borax exports from the US to China have risen fivefold to $131m since the iPhone was launched, underpinning $54bn of iPhone sales in 2017