Can We Clean The Blood Off Our Gadgets?

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

Some people doubt whether Intel can clean bloodstained “conflict minerals” from its supply chain, but Peter Judge applauds it for trying

Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich had plenty of interesting things to say at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this month – but he had a big, and very welcome, surprise for the Green Tech community: he promised to remove the so-called “conflict minerals” from Intel’s future products.

Phones and electronic devices use some pretty rare chemical elements, and one of the main sources for some of these is sub-Saharan Africa. In particular, the Eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where children are among those forced to work in mines operated by militias, to generate money for the never-ending civil war.

conflict minerals columbite-tantalite, cassiterite  wolframite  gold. Wikipedia by Rob Lavinsky iRocks,com
Conflict minerals: columbite-tantalite, cassiterite, wolframite, gold. (Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com)

The rocks that fuel a war

The four main conflict minerals are columbite-tantalite, a source of tantalum which is used in capacitors, cassiterite which provides tin for solder, wolframite which is a source of tungsten, and gold. In discussions about conflict minerals, the four metals – tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold – are often abbreviated as 3TG.

These valuable minerals can be hacked from the ground with little more than pickaxes, so armed groups are using slave labor to mine them, then smuggling them out to firms outside Congo for smelting. The armies make millions and we get the tainted elements in our electronics.

Charities and pressure groups – like the Enough Project – have been campaigning for a long while to end this …, and journalists and photographers have raised the profile of the issue.

In the US, the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 will require firms which report to the SEC to audit their supply chains in order to make sure their chemicals are sourced from “conflict-free” suppliers. However, the act is coming into force gradually and it’s not yet been possible to buy equipment which is certified as conflict-free.

Intel’s Krzanich got ahead of the game, by promising that all the minerals used in Intel’s silicon and packaging have been audited as coming from smelters which do not buy minerals from the Congolese militias.

Krzanich wants the rest of the industry to follow, and supply chain experts have welcomed his stance: “Intel’s pledge at CES this week to make chips free of conflict minerals, serves as an inspiration to the industry,” said Mark Morley, director of industry marketing for manufacturing, at supply chain expert GXS.

“In addition to the moral imperative, it will soon be a legal requirement in the United States when the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act comes into effect in May,” Morley continued. “The new law means that any company submitting filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission must confirm there are no conflict minerals in their supply chain.”

There are dissenting voices however. Some have criticised the certification programmes that are used in the audit process, even suggesting that Intel has risked its reputation in promising something that will be hard to deliver.

Where do we attack the problem?

Congo conflict mineral mine © marcus bleasdale
Image by Marcus Bleasdale

Tim Worstall of the Adam Smith Institute says the Dodd-Frank Act is misguided and we shouldn’t be looking to companies like Intel to eliminate conflict minerals, but instead focus on the few smelting plants where the minerals are processed.

Others say the “bag and tag” paper trail doesn’t work, and industry should instead use chemical analysis. Some say that X-ray fluorescence (XRF) can pick up other trace elements in a sample and provide a “fingerprint” which tells where it came from, so it should be easy to tell if a given mineral delivery came from a slave mine (see the comments to Tim Worstall’s article).

Some have tried to argue that the whole idea of avoiding conflict minerals is counter-productive, since it will drive business away from an impoverished country. However, there are mines in the DRC which have been certified conflict-free, and the country’s government has backed the idea of choosing minerals from clean sources.

As with campaigns to remove harmful materials from the IT industry and its supply chains, this sort of public announcement isn’t the end of the story, but it’s a very good beginning.

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