SINGAPORE (May 6): Tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold, often grouped together in mining industry jargon as 3TG, are vitally important to the industrial economy, used in high-tech products from smartphones to jets. But these conflict minerals, as they are known, frequently follow a sketchy path from mine to factory, coming from mines whose profits flow to violent militias, criminals and even terrorists. As human rights groups step up pressure on big companies to better police the provenance of raw materials in the US$600 billion ($816.9 billion) industry, Nathan Williams says he can help.

He is CEO of Minespider, a start-up that is using blockchain, the technology at the heart of Bitcoin, to better track shipments of metals as they move from mines to smelters and then on to factories worldwide. Blockchain, a database file from which information cannot be deleted, is infinitely expandable to accommodate new entries. Williams has adapted the technology to create files that can be attached to gold ingots, pallets of tin, or truckloads of tantalum and tungsten as QR code labels. The codes ultimately provide manufacturers with proof that their metals come from relatively peaceful places such as Peru, rather than, say, a rebel-run mine in war-torn Congo. “There’s a shift,” Williams says, “from the concept of ‘I can sell metal anonymously’ to ‘I must include a story with my metal.’ ”

Dozens of companies worldwide, from start-ups to big public companies, are using blockchain to help track 3TG metals and other commodities. Ford Motor has teamed up with IBM, China’s Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt and LG Chem to use blockchain to trace and verify ethically sourced cobalt, one of the minerals used in the lithium-ion batteries that power laptops and electric cars. In the Congo, Société Minière de Bisunzu, the biggest miner of coltan — used in pacemakers, computer hard drives, and mobile phones — has terminated its contract with ITSCI, which operates a paper-based system that certifies responsible minerals in high-risk areas, and moved to a product that produces blockchain-ready data. Minespider is working with Volkswagen, as well, on a pilot programme to help the automaker better track its minerals supply.

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