Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Every Friday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s word is:
Certain rare minerals are essential to our modern, technological world. Unfortunately, our sources for these minerals include countries known for their human rights violations, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is currently in the midst of a bloody, protracted civil war. When these rare minerals come from such war torn parts of the globe, we call them conflict minerals.
I imagine this term could apply to a wide range of chemical elements, but there are four particular metals of note:
- Gold: in addition to being pretty, gold is an exceptionally good conductor of electricity, making it useful in a wide range of electronic devices.
- Tin: alloyed with silver, tin is used for soldering electronic components.
- Tantalum: used for making capacitors.
- Tungsten: no known chemical element has a higher melting point than tungsten, making it ideal for use in light bulbs, vacuum tubes, and any other electronic device that tends to get really hot.
Reportedly, both sides of Congo’s civil war have profited from the mining of these four specific elements. All that money pouring into Congo has no doubt perpetuated the violence and prolonged the war.
According to an article in April’s issue of Scientific American, Intel has decided to stop buying conflict minerals. Obviously, they’ll still use gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten in their products, just not if they came from places like Congo. The same article states that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission will soon require companies to disclose where the metals in their products come from.
P.S.: Many of the rare metals we depend on here on Earth are readily available in space. I’ve written before about how this might be just the incentive we need to make space exploration a priority once again. Maybe it would reduce our dependence on Congolese mining as well.