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Conflict Minerals Resolution for Supply Chain?

The problems technology creates are most often solved with other technological innovations. During this process, not only do existing conflicts get resolved, but new market opportunities emerge and entrenched power brokers are sometimes stripped of the fleeting chokehold they have over the industry.

Such a development is happening now in the production of titanium as well as the 3TG (tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold) minerals and other rare earth metals.

For those still unaware, the 3TG minerals — also dubbed “conflict minerals” and used heavily in the production of key electronic equipment — have been much in the news lately. The US Congress wants to curb the production of these minerals in war-torn parts of Africa and has mandated the Securities and Exchange Commission to ask companies for information on their sourcing. The industry is rushing to comply but challenges abound.

Conflict resolution?
A UK company may have an answer to that problem. In a recent report, the Economist said tantalum, titanium, and a bunch of other high-value metals could become “cheap and plentiful” if a new extraction and production methodology being developed by British-based Metalysis becomes widely available and as successful as has been demonstrated in small-scale testing.

Out of work? A British company claims its new extraction technologies  will transform conflict minerals issues.

Out of work? A British company claims its new extraction technologies
will transform conflict minerals issues.

Metalysis in a statement on its website said it is “transforming the way metals, rare earth metals and alloys will be produced in the future.” The company further described the technology and what it believes would be the transformative impact on the industry as follows:

Metalysis owns the global rights to a transformational, innovative, platform technology capable of producing a wide range of metals and alloys with a reduced carbon footprint and lower cost. The Metalysis process works by introducing metal oxides into a molten salt bath where it is electrolysed to form metal powders. The process has numerous economical and environmental advantages over its rivals.

It's a tantalizing prospect. If the supply of these minerals become as plentiful as Metalysis imagines its process technology could make it, this could transform the landscape. In the case of the conflict minerals, the situation in the Congo would become less of a millstone hanging around the industry's collective neck. Manufacturers would need limited amount of the minerals to satisfy current demand and even expanded usage for other industries may still not be as problematic since other less contentious mines are opening up globally.

China consequences?
China could see its influence in the production of rare earth metals become severely curtailed, which would be good news for the entire industry. The country has been restricting supply of the rare earths for a while and has been favoring Chinese manufacturers over foreign companies in the allocation of the minerals. While many new mines are opening up elsewhere for rare earth minerals — Japan is leading the charge — China is by far still the dominant supplier and in addition to dictating supply conditions has also jacked up pricing in recent years.

Metalysis's far more efficient production system could put an end to that situation by reinstating fairer demand and supply metrics on the entire industry.

First, though, the British company must perfect the rollout of the technology behind its processing method and secure the extra financing required to expand production. That's the easy bit; the core technology riddle has been solved already.

9 comments on “Conflict Minerals Resolution for Supply Chain?

  1. Anna Young
    February 28, 2013

    “The process has numerous economical and environmental advantages over its rivals”.

    Bolaji, great article as usual. It is about time a new process and extraction methodology of Titanium is made available. This might probably end China's market supply domination of rare earth minerals and its unnecessary hike prices.

  2. hash.era
    February 28, 2013

    “This might probably end China's market supply domination of rare earth minerals and its unnecessary hike prices

    @ Anna: Exactly and that is what is required. We do not want a monopoly market rule. We need a competition which favors both supplier and buyer. 

  3. R.J.Matthews
    February 28, 2013

    Doubt it Bolaji Ojo

    http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21571847-exotic-useful-metals-such-tantalum-and-titanium-are-about-become-cheap

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/02/15/what-on-earth-is-the-economist-talking-about-here/?ss=strategies-solutions

    “Tim Worstall is a blogger, freelance journo and Fellow at the Adam Smtih Institute. His day job is the wholesale supply of various exotic metals.”

    I am on the opposite side to Tim Worstall (who seems critical of most attempts to clean up the conflict mineral trade) but if this was an answer think he would flag it up as one and use it as another argument for not regulating the trade.

    Need companies to stop sitting on the fence and come out against the legal challenges being done in their name,rather than hoping for some magic bullet.

    Most progress recently is the push on the ground in the DRC to control the trade and some companies cleaning up their act.

    http://www.enoughproject.org/blogs/sourcing-conflict-free-minerals-kivus-no-longer-pipe-dream-monitoring-must-follow

    http://www.enoughproject.org/blogs/apple-new-pledges-conflict-minerals-clean-congo

    Though efforts have been slowed down by renewed conflict partially funded by the conflict mineral trade and regional actors who profit from it.

    http://www.enoughproject.org/blogs/cnn-op-ed-hope-end-worlds-deadliest-war

    Going to be slow painful progress though till all the tech and other industries are pulling in the same direction.

     

     

  4. FreeBird
    February 28, 2013

    This technology addresses one of the fundamental rules of supply and demand: when supply is adequate, products lose their value. The best way to combat practices such as conflict mineral mining is to make it less profitable for those that exploit the supply. I hope the technology/technique advances.

  5. bolaji ojo
    February 28, 2013

    R.J. Matthews, I happen to agree there's no magic bullet to the conflict minerals problem but this doesn't mean this particular approach won't work. It won't solve the problem associated with how the minerals are mined but it may offer companies a different procurement source that can possibly help reduce its intensity. Maybe.

  6. R.J.Matthews
    February 28, 2013

    Every bit helps i but it would take some advanced alchemy to deal with the other conflict minerals in the DRC as well (gold tin and tungsten).

    The good news is having a spotlight on the DRC has helped mobilise politicians and others to try to solve some of the problems so cutting short the recent conflict there.

    So the companies that have been proactive in tackling and talking about the issues have contributed to saving lives.

    Till root causes are dealt with through things could deteriorate again.

     

  7. Anna Young
    February 28, 2013

     Precisely Hash.era, the essence of this reportedly efficient and cost effective innovative technology breakthrough by metalysis is probably to weaken China's supply condition in titanium. Let's wait and see what impact it will have on the Supply of titanium once the technology is made widely available.

  8. William K.
    March 1, 2013

    The new process is described as using ore containing oxides of the desired metals, and producing pure metal powders. Now the only challenge that I can see is finding the ore containing the oxides of those metals. Which I am sure that the present process for producing the rare metals starts with ore containing oxides of those metals. So how does this new process improve anything? To produce titanium metal you still need to start with the ore, which I am not aware of any new discovery of a way to recover it from seawater. Of course, finding a way to recover titanium metal from seawater would be a huge game-changer indeed.

  9. Ravenwood
    March 4, 2013

    re:  The problems technology creates  …

    I don't agree that technology created the problems we associate with Conflict Minerals. It is the hand that wields technology that creates problems.

    Likely I am weary of the manifold ways technology has been demonized as the creator of human problems.

    Otherwise I like this piece. It demonstrates that, in better hands, technology can be used to solve problems.

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