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In the jungles and mountains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, battles are raging, part of a 13-year-long civil war. Most of the world has paid little attention to the murder and rape that still dominates life in the DRC’s eastern provinces. But U.S. electronics companies like HP, Intel, and Apple recently became deeply interested, thanks to a provision on “conflict minerals” that was slipped into a 2010 financial reform law, the Dodd-Frank Act.
The minerals provision is intended to deprive the Congo’s warlords of funds by cutting off sales from the mines they control. It focuses on the ores that produce the “three Ts”: tin, tantalum, and tungsten, as well as gold. Public companies that use these metals in their products will be required to investigate their supply chains, determine if they use metals that were mined in the DRC, and disclose their findings to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), in their annual reports, and on their websites. If its minerals did originate in the DRC, a company must submit a larger report on whether the purchase of these minerals financed or benefited armed groups in that part of Africa. The SEC is expected to issue final rules for implementing the law before the end of the year, and companies are scrambling to get ready.
While the conflict minerals law applies only to companies that are required to file annual reports in the United States, it’s expected to have an international impact. Since mineral suppliers sell to electronics companies around the world, any change in operations they make for the U.S. market will have ripple effects elsewhere.
The law doesn’t only affect the electronics industry. But the conflict mineral issue has been linked in the public mind to electronics because the three Ts play crucial roles in smartphones, TVs, and laptops. Tin is used in solder and thus found on every circuit board, tantalum is used in capacitors, and tungsten is used in the vibrating motors of many phones.
Electronics companies had been warned that they’d eventually have to account for their use of these minerals. So firms like HP and Intel asked the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, two trade groups, to investigate the industry’s options.
The groups found that it’s extremely difficult to determine the origin of the tantalum used in a certain batch of smartphones. But they also realized that only about 45 smelters worldwide deal with the three Ts, buying the ores from suppliers and turning them into pure metals. After several years of research, the industry groups came up with the Conflict-Free Smelter Program, which is currently in the pilot phase for its first metal, tantalum.
The program asks each smelter to allow an annual independent audit of its mineral procurement process. If the auditors are convinced that no minerals are sourced from the Congo’s conflict mines, that smelter is certified as “conflict free,” allowing companies to buy its metals without worry. While the program is voluntary, EICC spokeswoman Wendy Dittmer says many smelting firms believe it’s in their interest to participate.
“Electronics companies are starting to ask questions all the way down their supply chains,” she says. “That certainly makes the buyers of the minerals very interested in being able to talk about their own due diligence.”
There are concerns that the law may backfire. By making the reporting requirements more onerous for companies that source minerals from the DRC, the law may reduce demand from all DRC mines, even those that aren’t in conflict regions and don’t finance armed groups.
These concerns about such a de facto ban led Motorola Solutions to initiate the Solutions for Hope Project, in which Motorola and several other companies formed a relationship with a conflict-free tantalum mine in the DRC’s Katanga province.
To establish the program, Michael Loch, Motorola’s director of supply-chain corporate responsibility, visited the mine and accompanied a shipment of ore along its export route. “This pilot allows our industry to stay engaged in the area,” says Loch. “We didn’t want to abandon the region.” But he acknowledges that it took a lot of effort to get the process in place for one mine and says it may be difficult to scale up the program.
The pilot programs should provide a framework to make compliance easier. Still, companies around the world are waiting for the SEC’s final rules with some anxiety. And there may be some efforts to block the rules’ enforcement through U.S. courts. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for one, has discussed the possibility of a lawsuit. The chamber disagrees with the SEC’s initial compliance cost estimate of US $71 million, saying that costs will instead be counted in the billions of dollars.
One thing is already certain about the SEC rules: There will be no fines for using conflict minerals. Even so, activists think it will have its intended effect, because companies will want to avoid bad publicity.
“For years we have been unknowing consumers of these minerals because companies have turned a blind eye,” says Sasha Lezhnev, a policy consultant on conflict minerals with the human rights group Enough. “This will enable consumers to make choices on whether or not to buy products from companies that are sourcing from these mines.”
By: ELIZA STRICKLAND
Verified by the Fraunhofer ISE Institute, CIGS (Copper Indium Gallium Selenid) thin-film manufacturer, Solibro, a subsidiary of Q-Cells, reported a CIGS test module has achieved a new world record conversion efficiency of 17.4%. Earlier this year Solibro produced a record full module reading of 14.7% in series production.
“We are very proud of this result as it demonstrates the leadership of the CIGS technology produced by Q-Cells’ subsidiary Solibro,” remarked Lars Stolt, CTO of Solibro. “The current record verifies the feasibility of the efficiency roadmap of the Q.SMART module targeting an average aperture efficiency out of series production of up to 16.7 % in 2016.”
The record 16cm2 test module, was said to have been fabricated using processes that could be scaled to mass production. Q-Cells noted that the co-evaporation CIGS process uses metal flux profiles, temperature profiles as well as process time similar to Solibro’s current production.
The modules also employ a ‘light-soaking” effect, claimed to be unique in the thin-film sector to generate an average of 2.5% power boost above nominal power at standard test conditions.
By Mark Osborne
Research and Markets now offers a comprehensive research report titled ‘Molybdenum Markets in the Electronics and Solar Industries – 2011’ from NanoMarkets.
NanoMarkets has been offering research reports on various markets such as lighting, display and photovolatics materials for the past several years. In the new report, NanoMarkets discusses the way of operations of these markets and their major players. The report provides an in-depth analysis of the electronics and energy related markets wherein molybdenum is used. It also includes revenue forecast for eight years.
In recent years, molybdenum has found new opportunities in the growth-oriented electronics and energy markets. Especially, the material has a significant share as an electrode material in the market for CIGS solar panels. This is one-of-its-kind report that discusses the market for molybdenum exclusively in the growth-oriented energy and electronics markets.
According to NanoMarkets, since molybdenum demonstrates strong adhesion to active layers and substrates, its usage in the solar panel market will increase continuously. The report predicts that molybdenum finds a huge prospect in the fast growing CdTe segment. Besides being used in the solar market, molybdenum finds interesting applications in OLED electrodes. The material has a bright future in other sectors such as related to display and lighting.
In the electronics industry, molybdenum has been used in conventional applications such as in magnetrons and in x-ray system components. Due to its high price, the material is used in combination with low cost materials such as aluminum in most of its applications.
By: Cameron Chai
Wind turbine manufacturers are scrambling to find alternatives to a key element used in direct-drive permanent magnet generators (PMGs), thanks to skyrocketing prices and diminishing supplies of crucial rare earths.
China currently provides 94% of the world’s rare earths, including neodymium and dysprosium, which are used in the magnets for direct-drive wind turbine motors. However, the Chinese government has put new restrictions on rare-earth mining that have resulted in lower supply levels, according to a report from research firm Roskill Information Services (RIS).
For instance, this year, the Chinese government issued new regulations requiring all companies that mine rare earths to show they have mandatory production plans, appropriate planning permission, environmental certification and safety licenses.
But it was last year’s tightening of China’s export quota that really impacted the rare-earth market. Between May 2010 and August 2011, Chinese internal prices for neodymium increased eightfold – a reflection of the shortage of rare earths for magnets within China, RIS notes.
China has also ramped up its export taxes on rare earths, causing a shortage in the rest of the world.
As a result, only 25% of the world’s rare-earth supply will come from China by 2015, as demand for the neodymium and dysprosium necessary for the manufacture of magnets for wind turbines will climb at a pace of 7% to 9% per year through 2015, according to RIS’ research.
This growth in demand could result in a supply deficit within that time frame, causing wind turbine manufacturers to rush to find alternatives to PMGs.
Searching for other options
Some companies that rely on PMGs for their wind turbines have already taken steps to avoid the problem.
In September, PMG manufacturer Boulder Wind Power engaged Molycorp – which claims to be the only U.S. supplier of rare earths, and the largest provider outside of China – to be its preferred supplier of rare earths and/or alloys for wind turbine generators.
In addition to avoiding the trade conflicts and price volatility associated with China by using a U.S.-based supplier, the company also uses permanent magnets that do not require dysprosium, a very scarce rare earth.
“By effectively solving the dysprosium supply problem for the wind turbine industry, this technology removes a major hurdle to the expansion of permanent magnet generator wind turbines across global markets,” says Mark A. Smith, Molycorp’s president and CEO.
Direct-drive wind turbine manufacturer Goldwind has taken a similar approach.
“As a result of early price increases, Goldwind began developing efficiencies and alternatives that reduce the amount of rare-earth materials required to manufacture our magnets, which, in turn, mitigates our exposure to future price fluctuations,” Colin Mahoney, spokesperson for Goldwind USA, tells NAW. “This is a scenario that we have long considered.”
Despite RIS’ somewhat negative forecast, some say the worst is over. Because companies are looking to U.S. rare-earth suppliers, such as Molycorp, instead of to China – as well as coming up with alternatives that do not involve rare earths – there is some indication that prices may come down.
In fact, a recent New York Times article claims prices have dropped significantly since August.
Goldwind’s Mahoney agrees with that assessment.
“While the price of rare-earth materials have fluctuated over the past several years, more recent trends have included a dramatic drop in the neodymium market,” he says.
Still, it is uncertain how long these prices can be maintained, as demand for rare earths is expected to soar by 2015, the RIS report notes.
By: Laura DiMugno