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How Lasers Could Help Fingerprint Conflict Minerals

Soulskill posted more than 2 years ago | from the lasers-for-the-ethical-treatment-of-people dept.

Technology 31

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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31 comments

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Or you could just... (1)

fotoguzzi (230256) | more than 2 years ago | (#39851561)

...use lasers to pew-pew the evil militia members.

Re:Or you could just... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39851625)

But do you use Gamemaker!? I bet you don't! I bet you're a Gamemakerless ultimatum supremacy! Such a one as you will never, not even once, be anything except a sandwich that never knew bread!

Lasers used to identify sharks. (2, Funny)

gstrickler (920733) | more than 2 years ago | (#39851603)

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

Bad label (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#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

Re:Bad label (1)

garrettg84 (1826802) | more than 2 years ago | (#39851969)

AC speaks the truth.

Re:Bad label (3, Insightful)

zippthorne (748122) | more than 2 years ago | (#39852079)

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.

Re:Bad label (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39852857)

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

Re:Bad label (1)

afidel (530433) | more than 2 years ago | (#39860545)

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 =)

What kind of militias? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39851787)

Well-regulated ones should be OK...

good luck (1)

Sebastopol (189276) | more than 2 years ago | (#39851795)

Like DeBeers and their gemstone cartel of thugs will let this happen.

Re:good luck (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39852993)

Why would they?

DeBeers would benefit from a limited supply, which is what this will create.

In addition, when government apparatus is set up, it is certain that the vested interests will lobby and install their own guys, thereby giving them effective control of a market.

It has to be understood that regardless of rhetoric, most corporations are not interested in free markets. They want markets that are skewed to their benefit. So if they say their against regulation, that's a lie---They're against regulation they can't control. DeBeers is just one example.

Re:good luck (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39853135)

The diamond industry ISN'T a free market - it's a monopoly.

Yes, corporations want markets skewed in their best interest (as does every individual). A free market encourages competition, so corporations have less ability to skew the market.

Re:good luck (1)

acooks (663747) | more than 2 years ago | (#39854233)

De Beers already marks their diamonds, which basically means all diamonds. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Beers#Forevermark [wikipedia.org]
  This move is about one thing only: Keeping artificial diamonds from China out of the market.

Militia-controlled mines? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39851827)

A device that could detect minerals coming from Deidranna-controlled mines would be much more useful.

Re:Militia-controlled mines? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39852005)

Cute :) There's at least one and possible two JA2 source ports out now, both I believe supporting linux, win32, and osx. And the JA2-1.13 port has multiplayer support coming in slowly.

That was my favorite game ever. I've been digging around for an install of it and am almost ready to just bite the bullet and dig out my dvd drive to install it again. I mean who doesn't think Barney should be shot, gutted, hung, and run over by a buick? Oh right, PUSSIES :)

Re:Militia-controlled mines? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39853003)

I played multiplayer (competitive, though I believe there is a co-op mode I didn't get to test it out) maybe a year ago, and it worked quite well. It's unfortunate that the 1.13 mod adds so much to the game, but makes it a lot harder to get new people into the game.
Anyway, I have high hopes that this research will lead to lasers that can detect Crepitus via melting Crepitus.

Elements! (2)

sexconker (1179573) | more than 2 years ago | (#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.

Too bad "Conflict Free" is nothing more than (2)

hsmith (818216) | more than 2 years ago | (#39851887)

marketing by the diamond cartels.

http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/sharife230710.html [monthlyreview.org]

Re:Too bad "Conflict Free" is nothing more than (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39852905)

Too true. South Africans, Israelis and Russians are good, but when black people do it its bad!?

Probably won't help much in electronics... (4, Informative)

slew (2918) | more than 2 years ago | (#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).

Re:Probably won't help much in electronics... (1)

tlhIngan (30335) | more than 2 years ago | (#39854249)

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).

Re:Probably won't help much in electronics... (2)

Neil Boekend (1854906) | more than 2 years ago | (#39855015)

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

Re:Probably won't help much in electronics... (1)

tlhIngan (30335) | more than 2 years ago | (#39858105)

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 of the cost of a 10 cent screw costing $10 is in the paperwork behind it, not the part itself.

Re:Probably won't help much in electronics... (1)

slew (2918) | more than 2 years ago | (#39859149)

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'd also like to see a pointer to where it's easier and more productive to recycle tantalum rather than process coltan into tantalite and then tantalum. Although I've heard that about 30% of tantalum is recycled, I've mostly read that is from industrial scrap (rather than consumer scrap) which is kinda the situation with cardboard.

Laser spectrometry is not new (1)

Tastecicles (1153671) | more than 2 years ago | (#39852191)

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 to the mine where it was first extracted.

Re:Laser spectrometry is not new (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39856065)

Umm, for position in the reactor don't you need isotopic information which implies some kind of mass spectrometry (possibly coupled to a laser ablation sampling step)?. 'Laser spectrometry' is a bit ambiguous.

Re:Laser spectrometry is not new (1)

ColoradoAuthor (682295) | more than 2 years ago | (#39857331)

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 they're developing a reliable, repeatable procedure which specifies exactly how to prepare the samples to avoid contamination and what elements to look for to reliably produce a fingerprint EVERY time without making too many unnecessary measurements. That's routine science, but necessary to getting wide acceptance for the technique.

I know! (1)

Chris Mattern (191822) | more than 2 years ago | (#39852847)

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

A great way to starve opponents of the US Polity (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39854901)

They're interested in stopping diamonds trafficked by militias but the DeBeers mines are just fine.

Also, presumably, diamonds trafficked by nominally US-friendly death squad dictatorships are just fine.

Sounds like they're attempting to remove a funding source for resistance groups in Africa.

"Conflict diamonds" a con (1)

TheMathemagician (2515102) | more than 2 years ago | (#39854917)

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 with their equally good diamonds. Therefore they must be demonised. Since their diamonds cannot be criticised on quality the concept of "conflict diamonds" was invented. On the other hand dictators rich from oil-revenues are most welcome to spend their money on weaponry.

Re:"Conflict diamonds" a con (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39855495)

>On the other hand dictators rich from oil-revenues are most welcome to spend their money on weaponry.

Exactly.

Conflict minerals in your jewelry and electronics? You asshole.

Conflict minerals in your gas tank, oil pan, and lubricating moving parts? Gotta get the kids to soccer practice somehow, this SUV ain't gonna fuel itself.

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