Mineral Uses

If a mine is controlled by armed groups who use mineral profits to purchase weapons — or other supplies or luxuries — the minerals from the mine are sometimes called conflict minerals. Tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold are useful minerals mined in many parts of the world. But sometimes those minerals come from a very conflicted area in Africa, most notably but not exclusively from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Four so-called conflict minerals and their uses are highlighted below.

Tantalum / coltan

  1. Tantalum capacitors enable energy storage in electronic products
  2. Tantalum capacitors are used in every laptop, smartphone, camera and video game console you’ve heard of – as well as in aircraft engines and military equipment
  3. Highly conductive and corrosive-resistant, tantalum is considered virtually “irreplaceable”
  4. Some alternatives include aluminum, ceramic and passivated nichrome – but none have the industry devotion of tantalum
  5. Armed groups in regions of the DRC who control mines earn an estimated $8 million per year from sales of coltan (the raw ore where tantalum comes from)
  6. 12% of all tantalum was mined in the DRC in 2011 (USGS data)
  7. Tantalum is predominantly mined in areas such as Australia, Brazil, and Canada but the amount mined in the DRC is not insignificant. A spike in tantalum export from the DRC since the tech boom of 2000 is apparent in the chart at bottom of page

The so-called “Africa’s World War” has been ravaging the eastern parts of the DRC for over a decade (map below).

Tin / casserite / coltan

  1. Tin is found in food packaging, in steel coatings on automobile parts, and in some plastics. Many industries use tin in the form of tin solder, for example, as solder on circuit boards
  2. Tin is predominantly mined in China, Indonesia, Peru, and Bolivia, as well as in the DRC
  3. About 3% of the global tin supply of the global gold supply, was mined in the DRC in 2010
  4. Tin earns armed groups in the DRC an estimated $85 million per year

By conservative estimates, the war and its effects has killed over 5 million people, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II.


  1. Tungsten is used in automobile manufacturing, drill bits and cutting tools, and other industrial manufacturing tools. It is also the primary component of filaments in light bulbs
  2. From 2006 through 2011, 77% to 87% of tungsten was mined in China
  3. Less than 1% of all tungsten was mined in the DRC in 2011 (USGS data)
  4. Yet, tungsten brings armed groups in the DRC about $2 million a year

The idea behind conflict mineral restrictions is no funds = no weapons = less violence and less war.


  1. Gold is used as currency, by the automotive industry in catalytic convertors, in electronics, medicine, coatings, nanotech, high tech; used in jewelry, fashion, fuel cells, jet engines, space exploration, and almost anywhere you can think of
  2. Gold is mined in many different countries, including the DRC
  3. Industry uses about 440 tons of gold per year globally
  4. Less than 1% of the global gold supply was mined in the DRC in 2010
  5. Only 23 kilograms of gold were “officially” exported from eastern Congo in the first half of 2012
  6. It’s estimated that 2 tons to 4 tons of gold was exported through illegal routes in the first half of 2012
  7. Roughly $30,000 worth of gold can fit in a pocket, and around $700,000 in a briefcase (source: The Enough Project)

Chart: How much tantalum is mined each year?

Useful reference:

Download a complimentary white paper here.

Information on software for minerals management – and SEC compliance – click here.

Map of Conflict Mineral region (note how green it is, with ample fresh water lakes):

Afterword: Some say it’s not the international community’s place to monitor human rights issues in a distant country. Yet — such a huge event as this WWII-scale reality demands international attention. And don’t be duped into thinking conflict mineral legislation is strictly a humanitarian gesture.

Economic interests are involved. Consider: many say Africa is the new Asia in terms of potential for production, industry and an economic boom. But regional warring drains resources and restrains the region’s growth. This in turn badly affects western nations and corporations who would prefer to invest there rather than Asia – if the political landscape is stable enough to do so.

If the regional warring could simmer down, look out world. In ten years we’ll be talking about Africa before India, Brazil and possibly China.

What are the Conflict Minerals?

Currently, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) list of conflict minerals consists of four named minerals. They are tantalum, tin, tungsten (referred to as the three T’s) and — no surprise here — gold, which somehow came into being with the potential for conflict hidden deep in its very molecular structure, it seems.

Here, let’s take a look at the four conflict minerals in more detail.

Tantalum. Columbite-tantalite (often called coltan in Africa) is the metal ore from which the element tantalum is extracted. Tantalum is used in making capacitors, particularly for high performance applications with a compact size and high reliability, ranging from hearing aids and pacemakers to airbags, GPS and ignition systems, vehicle anti-lock brake systems to laptops, mobile phones, video game consoles, video cameras and digital cameras. In its carbide form, tantalum is very hard and resistant to wear and corrosion. This makes it ideal for jet engine turbine blades, drill bits, end mills and similar “heavy duty” tools.

Tin.  Cassiterite is the chief ore needed to produce tin. Tin is ubiquitous in our culture, seems we can never have enough. It’s light and durable. Perfect for cans. Used a lot in solder on electronic circuit boards — in other words it’s used in all electronic equipment. Tin is also commonly used in biocides, fungicides and as tetrabutyl tin/tetraoctyl tin, an intermediate in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and high performance paint manufacturing.

Tungsten.  Wolframite is a key source of tungsten. Tungsten is a very dense metal element. Because it’s dense and heavy it’s used to make things like fishing weights, dart tips and golf club heads. Like tantalum carbide, tungsten carbide possesses hardness and wear resistance properties and is frequently used in applications like metalworking tools, drill bits and milling. Smaller amounts are used to substitute lead in so-called “green ammunition”. Minimal amounts are used in electronic devices, for example, in the vibration mechanism of cell phones.

Gold. Gold is of course used in jewelry, electronics, and dental products. It is also present in some chemical compounds used in certain semiconductor manufacturing processes.

These minerals are sometimes referred to as “the 3T’s and gold”, 3TG, or simply the “3T’s.”

Europe is currently looking at taking conflict mineral action. And, under the US Conflict Minerals Law, additional minerals may be added to the current list in the future.

Wet Gold II: Measuring Gold Content in an Ore With Only a Scale


In my last post we saw how you could measure density with only a scale.  In this post, we will expand on that technique and learn how to measure metal content in gold/quartz ore.  In principle, this technique could be used for other ore, but the ores can only be two part (e.g. gold and quartz) systems. Gold is a “natural” for this analysis as it is typically pure gold with quartz.

Gold is often found “veined” in quartz. I was certain that this was the origin of the “Golden Fleece,” the fleece being the white quartz with the gold on top. However, a little research did not clarify this belief.

Anyway, let’s assume you take a few weeks off from work. Leaving the world of solder paste, TIMS, ITO, wave solder flux and solder preforms behind, you set out for the west in search of some large gold nuggets.  Fate was with you in that, in a short time, you find a gold/quartz specimen as shown below.   The images, and the new “wet gold” weighing technique I will discuss, are from Bill and Linda Prospecting.

You are so excited you are shaking.  The only tools you brought are a scale, some string and a beaker.  To determine that gold content, you need to measure the weight of the gold in air and under water.  But you only have the scale as shown below.  What can you do?

After measuring the weight of the ore in air, fill the beaker part way with water, place it on the scale and zero the weight.  Then insert the ore on a string as shown below.  The scale will now read the weight of the volume of water that the ore displaces.  Let’s call this weight of the water displaced WD .  The wet weight of gold (weight of gold under water) will be the weight in air minus WD.  So we now have the weight in air and the weight in water.


The derivation of the equation that tells us how much gold is in the ore is at the end of this post.  The final equation we need is WAu = 3.07WW – 1.91WAir.  For our ore sample WAir = 25.1 pennyweight (pw). A pennyweight is 1/20th of a troy oz.  WD as shown in the photo above is 8.3 pw.  So WW = WAir – WD = 25.1-8.3 = 16.8 pw.  So WAu = 3.05*16.8 – 1.91*25.1 = 3.635 pw.  Subsequent analysis showed that the gold content was actually 3.9 pw and error less than 7%.  Not too bad for a simple field measurement.  At $1600/oz our ore sample contained. a little over $300 dollars of gold.

This technique could be used to measure the density of an alloy as in the last post.



The Derivation of the Equation


No Silver Lining

Many people have been infatuated by the price of gold in recent months, but the price of silver has also skyrocketed. In 2000 silver was about $3 per troy oz. In the eight years that followed, its price grew to $15/oz. Today it is trading at over $41/oz! This price is almost an all time high, except for the time when the Hunt brothers tried to corner the silver market in 1980. The aberration of their efforts jolted the silver price to just short of $50/oz., but it settled down to $11 or so after the Hunts came under margin call and other pressures.

Unfortunately, the dramatic price increase today, does not appear to be an aberration. Although we may hope that it will soon drop to more historic levels, we may not have reason to expect that it will.

Although not as dramatic, tin and copper have experienced significant prices increases as well. The price of tin has doubled in the last year to $15/pound and copper has increased from about $3/lb to $4.50.  These metals are obviously key ingredients in critical electronic materials such as solder pastes, solder bar, and solder preforms.

In addition, oil, which is used for most organic electronic materials such as PWB resins, flip chip underfill, and epoxy fluxes, has increased to $110/bbl – approaching its all time high of $145/bbl.

All of these price increases have a significant impact on the electronics materials supply chain. Although we are used to price decreases in the cost of our mobile phones and PCs, at this point in time, the price of the materials that go into these devices will be increasing.

As one materials supply chain executive commented at Apex: “It’s not like we can be clever and somehow work around the price increase of silver and these other materials, we have to pass it on to our customer, or go out of business.