Screening for Conflict Minerals: Columbite-Tantalite and Beyond

Diggity Geochemistry, Independent Studies, LIBS, News & Press

One important application for SciAps handheld LIBS is the identification of the geographic source of so-called “conflict minerals,” which are used as raw materials for components of consumer electronics. Such information helps companies and their customers understand whether their purchasing decisions are supporting conflicts in war zones.

Dr. Richard Hark was among the first to pursue this application for laboratory LIBS in the years before SciAps made the first handheld LIBS. Hark published two articles with undergraduate students: “Can the provenance of the conflict minerals columbite-tantalite be ascertained by laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy?” (Anal. Bioanal. Chem, 2011) and “Geographical analysis of ‘conflict minerals’ utilizing laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy” (Spectrochim. Acta B, 2012). Both articles discussed using a laboratory LIBS for geochemical fingerprinting, which allowed the researchers to identify the geological provenance for columbite and tantalite (also known as “coltan”) from Africa and other locations with a high level of certainty.

These studies paved the way for industrial partners to comply with the U.S. Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, which mandated that manufacturers report whether their tin, niobium and tantalum, tungsten and gold (extracts of cassiterite, columbite-tantalite and wolframite) had been obtained from conflict-affected and high-risk areas.

In 2014, with the SciAps handheld LIBS available, Hark realized that an easily operable handheld analyzer would be perfect for this application.

“LIBS can help address the question of where the conflict minerals come from, not because it offers 100% certainty, but because it’s a fast, presumptive screening tool. If you had a sample of the coltan, you could pick it up, zap it, and in a matter of 20 seconds, you could have an answer to where the sample came from with some reasonable level of confidence,” says Hark.

He wrote to a well-known electronics company based in the U.S. about their supply-chain issue and suggested that handheld LIBS could help them verify their paperwork.

The CEO connected Hark with the head of their supply chain initiative, who was interested in exploring the use of LIBS, but by then, the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court ruled that the Dodd-Frank Act requirement “violates the prohibition against compelled speech. By compelling an issuer to confess blood on its hands, the statute interferes with that exercise of freedom of speech under the First Amendment.”

After the rule was suspended in 2017, interest in geochemical fingerprinting evaporated from many industrial partners. However, the articles Hark published with his undergraduate students opened unexpected doors. “One of my students was invited to speak about their research at an event in Washington, D.C., that also featured the Director of the National Science Foundation. That was a great opportunity for an undergraduate student!” says Hark.

The articles have also led to other manufacturing and electronics companies contacting Hark. Many companies continue working to identify conflict minerals in their products to comply with international standards that require manufacturers to map supply chains, identify, assess and mitigate risks, as well as report publicly on their actions and outcomes.

Apple, Alphabet (Google), HP, Microsoft, and Intel are leaders in this work.

With the SciAps handheld LIBS, companies could more easily reach these goals, whether directly or through third-party verification companies.

“If you had a sample of the coltan, you could pick it up, zap it, and in a matter of 20 seconds, you could have an answer to where the sample came from with some reasonable level of confidence.”
— Dr. Richard Hark


“Geochemical Fingerprinting by Handheld Laser‐Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy” (2017) (abstract only, link to paid purchase)

“Geochemical Fingerprinting Using LIBS” (2014) (link to book)

“Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy: A Closer Look at the Capabilities of LIBS Part 1” (2014) 

“Fingerprinting Conflict Minerals: Spectroscopic method could help identify mineral origins” (2012)

Articles about companies eliminating conflict minerals

Many Companies Struggle to Comply with Conflict Mineral Reporting Rules (2020)

“The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) annual report Conflict Minerals: Actions Needed to Assess Progress Addressing Armed Groups’ Exploitation of Minerals examines a sample of filings from 1,083 companies that submitted conflict mineral disclosures required by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2019. According to the GAO, about half of companies that performed initial research in 2019 were able to determine where their conflict minerals came from, echoing findings in 2017 and 2018.”

New Conflict Minerals Rankings Spotlight World’s Top Consumer Electronics Companies and Jewelry Retailers (2017)

“Apple is clear leader in supporting a conflict-free minerals trade; Walmart, Sears and Neiman Marcus are ranked worst; Rankings show steady advances on conflict-free sourcing from Congo, but urgent need for more action to ensure products aren’t linked to mass atrocities and human rights abuses.”

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SciAps, Inc. is a leading manufacturer of handheld XRF and LIBS analyzers, able to measure virtually every element, in almost any material. These breakthrough instruments have been expanding applications for portable, in-field measurements of elements, minerals and compounds in every major industry around the world. Sign up for our e-mail list to be the first to hear about this expanding world of handheld analysis.

Need an academic loaner? We frequently loan handheld analyzers for a few weeks or a month to academic researchers from the U.S. and Canada, so that they can perform a study or field analysis anywhere in the world. LIBS is often a preferred technique, especially for students, since operators do not have to deal with the regulatory complexities of X-ray fluorescence analyzers. And our accompanying ProfileBuilder software provides operators complete freedom to modify parameters. You’re not limited to factory-imposed calibrations or unchangeable multi-variant techniques. Contact us with a brief description of what you want to measure.

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