About the SA Blog Network



Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American
Observations HomeAboutContact

Could Your Texts, Tweets and Selfies Be Funding War in Africa?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint


Intel used last week’s International CES to spotlight the tech industry’s efforts to stop buying raw materials from warlord-controlled mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Image courtesy of Intel.

Hard to believe that our mundane social media banter could have an impact on the civil war raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo for more than a decade. The problem isn’t the content of these messages, it’s the devices used to send them. Smartphones, tablets, PCs and other devices often have electrical components made from so-called “conflict minerals”—gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten—taken from mines in the DRC, where armed groups take a cut of the profits to fund their violent campaigns.

Chipmaker Intel used last week’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to spotlight this problem and declare that its microprocessors are now free of conflict minerals from the DRC. It’s easy to question how such a large manufacturer at the end of a long supply chain can make such a claim, and the extent to which high-tech companies working with the small number of mines not involved in the DRC conflict can seriously cut funding to warring groups. Still, Intel says it has taken steps to have its suppliers—in particular, the smelters that extract metals from mined ore—audited by third-party companies and certify that they are not cooperating with extortion efforts that funnel money to local warlords.

Intel is several steps removed from the actual purchase of raw materials and relies on a multilayer supply chain to build the microprocessors that power our computing devices. Rather than pull its business from suppliers that deal with the DRC mines, however, the company opted to evaluate the components of its microprocessors, trace the different materials back to their source and make sure those mines aren’t funding violence in that country, CEO Brian Krzanich said at CES.

The idea of conflict minerals was relatively obscure four years ago when the Enough Project, a Washington, D.C.–based nongovernmental organization, brought the issue to Intel’s attention. Although only a handful of mines in the DRC are conflict free, Intel’s work has encouraged other companies to likewise examine the sources of their products’ raw materials, Enough Project policy director Sasha Lezhnev said at CES.


At CES 2014, Intel's panel brought together CEO Brian Krzanich, Enough Project Policy Director Sasha Lezhnev and Actor and Activist Robin Wright to discuss the quest for conflict-free technology and called upon the electronics industry to join the cause. Image courtesy of Intel.

Tech companies don’t use as much of these minerals as other industries, such as jewelry makers. Yet gold, tantalum, tungsten and tin play an important role in our gadgets. Like many device manufacturers, Intel relies on highly conductive gold in circuit cards, connectors and certain assembly and test packaging. The company uses tantalum in some of its capacitors and in the “sputtering” deposition process used to make its semiconductors. Tungsten also plays a limited role in the semiconductor fabrication process. Tin, meanwhile, is a key component in the silver-tin solder that attaches electronic components to their circuit boards.

Intel had been making strides to reduce its use of conflict minerals prior to last week’s announcement and topped the Enough Project’s 2012 list ranking electronics companies for their efforts. HP, Philips, SanDisk and chipmaker AMD rounded out the top five, while Nintendo, HTC, Sharp, Nikon and Canon were at the bottom, based on their lack of cooperation with and acknowledgement of Enough’s efforts.

Intel may be ahead of the curve in cleansing its supply chain of conflict minerals, but in August 2012, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, began requiring companies to annually disclose the sources of the gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum used in their products. (pdf) The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers have filed a lawsuit against the SEC in response to its new rules, but companies will still have to get their first disclosure reports to the agency by May 31.

Intel’s conflict mineral supply-chain auditing was done as part of the Conflict-Free Smelter assessment program run by the high-tech industry groups Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC)—which has Intel on its board of directors—and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI). This voluntary program relies on independent third-party evaluations of smelter and refiner procurement activities and determines if the smelter or refiner demonstrated that all the materials they processed originated from conflict-free sources. The program also maintains a list of compliant suppliers worldwide.

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 6 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Uncle.Al 3:19 pm 01/13/2014

    One fails to observe any real world negative impact.

    Link to this
  2. 2. RosieConnelly 7:08 pm 01/13/2014

    like Kenneth answered I am shocked that someone able to earn $9278 in 4 weeks on the computer. try this web-site… http://WWW.TeC80.COⅯ

    Link to this
  3. 3. jtdwyer 2:03 am 01/14/2014

    I neglected to mention that, in the last paragraph, the population is expected to reach 10 billion by the end of this century…

    Link to this
  4. 4. denverjims 4:45 pm 01/14/2014

    So the “texts, tweets and selfies” have NOTHING to do with the real issue of the article – it’s the devices. Just (IMHO) a lame attempt to get attention and ‘looks’.

    I’d guess I’d expect this of Fox News or MSNBC but hadn’t realized that SA had gone so low. Martin Gardner and the other folks who made this a respected magazine of science are happily beyond embarrassment.

    Well, it fooled me into looking this time, I must admit but, as the Russians and The Who said, ‘Won’t get fooled again’. Disconnecting from all notification emails.

    Link to this
  5. 5. littlerunningdeer 5:27 pm 01/14/2014

    Not happy with you either, Larry Greenemeier. You wasted my time. You lied to me, misrepresenting your story with a totally misleading title.

    There are plenty of epithets to use here – most would apply.

    Thank you too Scientific American, for such excellent oversight of your authors.

    Link to this
  6. 6. hkraznodar 6:47 pm 01/17/2014

    Not too impressed with the title either.

    I have a fast solution. Drop serious radioactive waste on the mines. Combine it with biological and chemical weapons and create a lifeless wasteland. The U.N. will complain but they are pathetic and will do nothing. Once all the life is gone have drones target anything that moves. No strategic minerals = no war. This stuff is available elsewhere so why buy blood metals?

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article