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How Lasers Could Help Fingerprint Conflict Minerals 31

Posted by Soulskill
from the lasers-for-the-ethical-treatment-of-people dept.
New submitter carmendrahl writes "Diamonds might get most of the media's attention, but they're not the only minerals being sold to underwrite militias. Two chemistry teams are developing portable instruments that can detect an elemental fingerprint in mineral ores, to verify that the samples don't come from militia-controlled mines. One technique uses laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (PDF), which vaporizes a small amount of an ore sample with a high-energy laser pulse, and detects elements in the sample by their characteristic light emission. The other technique couples the laser ablation to a mass measurement and a scanning electron microscope."
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How Lasers Could Help Fingerprint Conflict Minerals

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  • ...use lasers to pew-pew the evil militia members.
  • by gstrickler (920733) on Monday April 30, 2012 @06:47PM (#39851603)

    "Sorry, gentlemen your minerals are no good here."
    "Now, show these fine gentlemen our pet sharks"

  • Bad label (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 30, 2012 @06:52PM (#39851645)

    There are no conflict materials only conflict regions and conflict people. Solve that first. Stop vilifying rocks. Rocks don't kill people, people kill people.

    JJ

    • AC speaks the truth.
    • Re:Bad label (Score:4, Insightful)

      by zippthorne (748122) on Monday April 30, 2012 @07:43PM (#39852079) Journal

      Also, stop putting the stupid rocks up on a pedestal.

      You shouldn't need to send $10k to some murderous dictator (and partly to an international cartel...) to obtain a sparkly white trinket for your betrothed in order to get married. Indeed, starting your marriage off on a foundation of market manipulation, child exploitation, murder and oppression seems like it would not be a sound beginning to lasting nuptials.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Indeed. I think if you and your betrothed agree on that position, you're off to an excellent start.

      • by afidel (530433)
        And that's why my wife's engagement ring was $700 and everything I've bought since has either been polar diamonds (Canadian company that works outside DeBeers) or diamond coated moissanite. We'll be celebrating our twelfth year of debt free marriage in July =)
  • Like DeBeers and their gemstone cartel of thugs will let this happen.

  • by sexconker (1179573) on Monday April 30, 2012 @07:15PM (#39851831)

    Find ore sample.
    Blast with laser.
    Analyze what happens.
    Determine ore sample has other elements in proportions similar to ore samples taken from a certain location.

    Any of the following will fool this method:

    Perform a rudimentary refining pass on your ore samples to remove enough of said trace elements to fudge the signature.
    Contaminate your ore slightly so its trace elements resemble those of ore samples from another region.
    Not allow inspectors in to analyze soil and ore samples from your milita-run slave mine - this prevents them from generating a useful signature to compare against.
    Do nothing: Men will buy women shiny rocks regardless of how they are dug out of the ground.

  • by hsmith (818216) on Monday April 30, 2012 @07:21PM (#39851887)
    marketing by the diamond cartels.

    http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/sharife230710.html [monthlyreview.org]
  • by slew (2918) on Monday April 30, 2012 @07:52PM (#39852151)

    The targetted mineral in this analysis seem to be coltan (which is refined into tantalum for capacitors) used in the electronics assembly business. Unfortunatly, the electronics supply chain is so obtuse and full of counterfeits as lots of jelly bean components (commodity components like capacitors and resistors) are purchased on the spot-market by board assembly houses, and nobody seemed to care where the stuff comes from as long as the assembly house got a deal.

    As an example of how messed up it can be, back in 1998, there was a terrible spike in bad electrolytic capacitors read the wiki about this [wikipedia.org]. Nobody is sure where this stuff came from (although many suspect rogue suppliers that did industrial espionage). Tantalum capacitors tend to be physically smaller parts with even less labeling and counterfeits tend to be "mixed" in with real parts (or maybe the real parts are "cut" with counterfeits), so even lot identification is hard to do.

    If people are serious about conflict materials like Coltan in the Congo, the real thing to do is to lower the demand for new electronic assemblies (just like people say reducing the new diamond demand is the only way to do anything about conflict diamonds). These are really just fungable commodities. If you don't buy the conflict version, someone will. As an example, I don't see people using laser spectroscopy on their gasoline to see if their crude oil was refined in Iraq, it's because it doesn't help.

    Although folks may talk about labelling (e.g., like "free-trade-coffee" or "shade-grown") to inform consumers, people are just talking about the "beans" and rarely ask about the origin of the cloth "sack" holding the "beans". In a device like a iPhone the A5-chip and maybe the memory chips are the "beans" and the capacitor is sort of like the "sack". It holds the beans, but nobody thinks about it that much. Labelling doesn't get very far when you think of it like that.

    I see all sorts of folks talking about reducing their footprint of other things (carbon, water, oil, etc), but I rarely see anyone saying that we shouldn't be buying the latest and greatest electronic do-hickys (kBlah8 just came out, I'm gonna to toss my kBlah7 and buy the new one). Maybe we should all be using our electronic whiz-bangs a bit longer to reduce the demand for these conflict minerals (and all the other environmental damage assembling new and disposing of old electronic do-hickys cause).

    • by tlhIngan (30335)

      There are only 18 smelters worldwide that can transform coltan into tantalum. In fact, they've all agreed to not purchase conflict minerals.

      The problem for everyone else is there's a LOT of recycling of electronics - the tantalum is re-smelted from recycled electronics (mining recycled electronics is far easier and more productive than trying to extract it out of the earth).

      The problem is that previous tantalum caps were made with conflict minerals, so it's technically impossible to say if the cap you're us

      • The recycling of once-conflict materials doesn't supply the conflict with money.
        • by tlhIngan (30335)

          The recycling of once-conflict materials doesn't supply the conflict with money.

          True, but laws requiring use of conflict-free minerals don't make that distinction and regard it still as conflict minerals. They often just say "agree to not use parts with components sourced from conflict areas". Just like say, conflict diamonds - if you buy a used one ("recycled"), it's still a conflict diamond even though the slaveowners got paid decades ago.

          The other side is the documentation issue - see aviation where most

      • by slew (2918)

        There are only 18 smelters worldwide that can transform coltan into tantalum. In fact, they've all agreed to not purchase conflict minerals.

        The problem for everyone else is there's a LOT of recycling of electronics - the tantalum is re-smelted from recycled electronics (mining recycled electronics is far easier and more productive than trying to extract it out of the earth).

        The problem is that previous tantalum caps were made with conflict minerals, so it's technically impossible to say if the cap you're using is completely free of conflict minerals. Short of throwing away all the recycled electronics, that is.

        So a manufacturer really cannot say if their product was conflict-free. They can say that no NEW conflict mineral was added, but recycled content may very well be conflict.

        Actually, there is ONE industry that might be able to trace all the way back - aviation. Given the strict tracability demands (they can trace screws back to the smelter and maybe the mine that dug it out), it's possible a similar amount of paperwork exists for the avionics. (It partially explains the cost of aviation parts - just having someone file paperwork all day).

        A few things...

        So, if the large smelters of the world claim they don't buy conflict coltan, then who buys it? If you believe the local reporters, it's the Chinese companies like NingXia Non-ferrous Metal Smeltery (NNMS) via shell companies in neighboring countries to the Congo. After a big crackdown on Belgian, German, UK, and US companies 10 years ago, the Chinese apparently have come in to take up the slack.

        Even in aviation, even with all that documentation, they have a problem with counterfeit parts [aia-aerospace.org].

        I'

  • For example, it can be used to track samples of gold back to the mine where it was extracted; to track radiation sources back to where they were extracted, where they were refined, even down to the batch and position in the reactor. Every compound sample has a unique fingerprint which is the same as any other sample taken from the same batch. As long as you have a control sample (which is what they do for "conflict free" mineral ores otherwise they don't get to market), then you can match any random sample

    • As someone who works with laser spectroscopy, the biggest development here is the prospect of portability. Usually LIBS and LA-ICP-MS (laser ablation-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry) systems are as big as a couple of refrigerators, and just as heavy. And that's not counting the supplies of lab-grade argon, helium, and nitrogen needed to run the equipment.

      The blurb from Geophysical Research Abstracts says that they're developing a "method." That's a technical term in the field, which means the

  • We could mount them on 747s! [slashdot.org]

  • The diamond market is controlled by a cartel comprising de Beers and the Russians. They carefully control the supply and manipulate the price and sell through closed organisations of dealerships. It's also a one-way market. You can only sell diamonds at a fraction of their supposed market rate and there is a public brainwashing campaign to persuade people (well women mainly) to keep diamonds for ever. It's all a con. So what threatens this cosy state of affairs? Other African countries flooding the market

I bet the human brain is a kludge. -- Marvin Minsky

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