Can DNA Marking Solve ‘Conflict-Mineral’ Challenge?

After reading Bolaji Ojo's article, Illusions of ‘Conflict-Free’ Minerals, I wanted to understand how this issue might be tackled head-on and what technology could come into play to counter the forces behind this insidious problem.

My wife and I have a very dear friend in the Congo who has a PhD in urban development and who is also a nurse. This friend is currently leading a humanitarian effort to assist thousands of widows who lost their husbands in the ongoing conflicts. The outlaw military forces are a constant threat to the villages where she works, and many of the men who did not lose their lives have had arms, hands, and legs cut off, rendering them incapable of making a regular living. Conflict minerals — mainly tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold — have become the common currency for these nightmare soldiers.

We already know that tantalum, gold, and tin are at the board level in most consumer electronics, and the challenge is to meet the demand for these metals, but not at the expense of human lives. Several companies are rising to that challenge and making considerable progress toward identifying mines and smelters that are not part of the illicit, conflict-ridden supply chain. recently published a report that lists 24 companies and measures their progress towards conflict-free mineral usage since 2010. {complink 2657|Intel Corp.} was ranked the highest with 60 percent progress, while Nintendo had made no effort to trace or audit its supply chain, whatsoever. The fundamental metrics used for tracking progress require tracing, auditing, and certifying the supply chain participants. Credible auditing requires third-party auditors through the industrywide Conflict-Free Smelter (CFS) program. Twenty smelters have already passed the audits, including most of the tantalum smelters.

But, as Bolaji pointed out, with some regions that are conflict classified being located next to other regions that are not conflict classified, it is simply a matter of moving or smuggling the conflict minerals out of the conflict region to the non-conflict region and having the blood-stained minerals classified as conflict free. Obviously, with these clandestine, trans-regional movements, there arises credible deniability as to the origin of the minerals. Here is where I would like to suggest the optimal technology that could come into play in the very near future.

Currently, bulk copper wire is being treated or sprayed with botanical DNA such that the factory can always identify its own material for tracking and recovery purposes. Copper has been a hot item on the black market for some time, and the thieves trafficking in stolen copper have been able to get away with it quite easily. The DNA marking as a countermeasure is becoming more widespread as copper continues to be a target for theft. Imagine the same technology being applied to bulk materials and even ores.

I don't know if this is practical yet, but large DNA spray or bath operations could mark the raw material ores as coming from conflict-free authorized sources only. Any material not having the authenticating DNA would be suspect as being from a conflict area. Each mine or smelter would have its own DNA signature as issued by a regulatory agency, and the auditing process could be greatly expedited by using random, unscheduled, onsite auditors who have been trained and equipped with the tools for authenticating the DNA.

If I were Nintendo having to respond to the results reported in the report, I would want to take action immediately towards rectifying any potential misunderstandings or negative public opinion that might arise from being thought of as a reckless player in the worldwide supply chain. Kudos to Intel and HP for getting high marks for progress towards thwarting the forces behind conflict minerals.

I will pass the report on to our friend working in the Congo; she can give some comfort to the women there and their children who have lost husbands and fathers to this horrible situation. To Nintendo and other low rankers, I can only say that doing nothing about conflict minerals might be in conflict with your own best interests as well.

11 comments on “Can DNA Marking Solve ‘Conflict-Mineral’ Challenge?

  1. R.J.Matthews
    August 28, 2012

    Sounds an interesting idea Douglas, good to see an article like this appearing on EBN. Positive ideas like this can really make a difference and supply chain specialists can make a huge contribution in cleaning up supply chains in a economic way.



    Efforts have been made to tag minerals from certain mines and areas but still have a long way to go to being effective enough. Plus there has been some misuse of the taging process which maybe your idea could stop.



    Great work keep the ideas coming!


  2. dalexander
    August 28, 2012

    @R.J.  Thank you for the positive comments. I have been listening to lectures on microfluidics and since the costly part of DNA tech is the lab expense, I am interested in examining the advances that would reduce the cost and time for DNA analysis and authentication. Lab on a Chip technologies are moving towards desktop and eventually hand-held equipment that will run a DNA or fluid analysis at low cost and very quickly. We may see common deployments of DNA authenticating equipment in 3-5 years. If you compare Moores Law in microelectronics to the advances in microfluidics, then we should have home genome sequencing kits by 2020. Long before that, we should have do it yourself medical diagnostic kits for what now fuels much of the escalating cost in healthcare…to wit, non-emergency visits to emergency rooms. Imagine taking a blood or urine sample at home, running the diagnostics and seeing a list of possible pathogens or simple remedies for what ails you. I don't want to oversimplify the prospects, but we are moving in that direction and whether it is 5 years or 50 years, we will get there. How long has microfluidics been around? There are projects now dedicated to nanofluidics. We'll get there for sure.

  3. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 28, 2012

    That's a great idea for an application of the DNA technology. Right now, I believe the verification that minerals are conflict-free comes from a human and technology based audit process. Embedding something in the ore right out of the mine would be a step in the right direction.

  4. R.J.Matthews
    August 28, 2012
  5. Houngbo_Hospice
    August 28, 2012

    Any method that can help solve conflict-mineral challenge is praise-worthy and should be encouraged. But we can't expect that to be the solution to all the problem. Also people should be trained in order to avoid that the method being miseused.

  6. Houngbo_Hospice
    August 28, 2012


    Are there shortcomings to DNA use for mineral fingerprinting that may prevent its reliability? Also can the method be “hacked” ?

  7. prabhakar_deosthali
    August 29, 2012

    The DNA marking of minerals looks to be the promsing technology to prevent the minerals from conflict areas getting into supply chain as long as the DNA marking does not get wiped out or tampered with in the transit process.

    For it to be successful, DNA marking technology has to be fool-proof, easy to validate and cheaper to implement.


  8. R.J.Matthews
    August 29, 2012

    Probably Douglas is the best person to answer that Hospice but any one measure on it own is going to be vulnerable to being gotten round in some way. In this case say you had a mineral bath at mine giving each shipment a unique id that could not be altered that would not on its on be foolproof.

    People at the mine could be bribed to bath minerals from other areas that were not conflict free then fiddle the production figures from the mine or mines. To do that would probably be hader though than getting around some present tagging programs.

    Whatever happens you are still going to need smelters to come on board as they form a natural pinch point in the supply chain and spot check at that stage can spot illicit minerals sneaked in with clean sources.

     With Dodd Frank there is now a lot more pressure on those smelters who have not signed up to the program to do so.

  9. Himanshugupta
    August 29, 2012

    Is there any specific method to apply DNA marking such that it does not get damaged or it cannot be copied. Dipping or spraing DNA might not be enough as DNA can get damaged at high heat or extreme conditions. 

  10. owen
    September 3, 2012

    Douglas, Aware of you interest, “… in examining the advances that would reduce the cost and time for DNA analysis and authentication.” I thought you should be aware of the following press release: 

    Bode Technology Offers First Rapid DNA Service Delivering a DNA Profile from Evidentiary Samples in Under 90 Minutes

    Released 8/27/12 and available at:

  11. dalexander
    September 3, 2012

    @Owen, the time for authentication will soon be under an hour so stock verification/ authentication can be performed while the stockroom is on their lunch break. They come back to their computer to find the lot has passed inspection and then it can be moved to WIP or inventory. I think we are looking at a very strong anti-counterfeiting technology. We share the same interests.

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