The U.S. electronics industry is demonstrating mixed reaction to the illegal mining of tantalum ore in several environmentally protected areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But even those who express concern say they don't see how they or the electronics industry as a whole can do anything to remedy the problem.
A recent letter from the Electronic Components, Assemblies, and Materials Association (ECA) urging its member companies to obtain their tantalum only from lawful sources has vocal support from a number of capacitor suppliers that buy tantalum powder.
On the other hand, power supply makers -- which are among the biggest users of tantalum capacitors -- in the main have reacted indifferently, saying the issue concerns those further down the tantalum supply chain.
But whether supportive or indifferent, the electronics industry acknowledges its ability to respond to the situation is limited, due principally to the difficulty of tracing the origin of tantalum ore through the maze of the metal's suppliers, traders, and processors.
The ECA's letter supports an earlier advisory from the TIC (Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center), a Belgium-based nonprofit trade association consisting of producers, processors, and consumers of tantalum.
The TIC's letter decries tantalum mining by poachers in Congo's Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Both are United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites in which mining is prohibited because of their environmentally sensitive tropical forests and threatened wildlife.
Both the TIC and ECA see their roles in the matter as watchdogs, dispensing information and trying to influence member companies to ask their suppliers where their tantalum comes from, but with no power to implement sanctions against industry violators. "Our role is strictly to raise awareness," said Bob Willis, president of the Arlington, Va.-based ECA, which is an arm of the industry's major organization, the EIA.
Most of the world's tantalum ore comes from Australia and Africa. About a third originates in Africa, with the illegal ore from Congo accounting for a small portion of that, the TIC said.
Mike Kirkowski, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Condor D.C. Power Supplies Inc., Oxnard, Calif., said he was unaware of the situation, but questioned how effective the ECA's advisory will be given the tantalum supply chain's circuitous path. "We buy tantalum capacitors from a Far East supplier, who in turn receives material from Panasonic. But we don't know who Panasonic gets the tantalum from," he said.
"You hope your suppliers are doing things legally," Kirkowski added."But beyond that, what can you do? Do you expect our suppliers to ask?"
A spokesman for Vicor Corp., a power supplier based in Andover, Mass., commented that "we don't view the source of tantalum as an issue for us, but more for the capacitor suppliers."
Some tantalum capacitor suppliers have expressed concern over the illegal mining. "We were surprised to learn of the tantalum situation," said Glyndwr Smith, senior vice president and assistant to the chief executive at Vishay Intertechnology Inc., Malvern, Pa.
Still, Smith conceded that Vishay buys tantalum powder based solely on whether it meets the company's material specifications and doesn't trace its origin. Smith chooses to trust that Vishay's suppliers-the processors who convert tantalum ore into powder-are obtaining their material from appropriate sources.
For Sandy Beck, vice president of marketing at Kemet Electronics Corp. in Greenville, S.C., "the situation is inexcusable." But while he praised the ECA's efforts to alert tantalum suppliers and users, he felt that because it is so difficult to trace the origin of tantalum ore, the Congolese government will ultimately have to control the illegal mining if the problem is to be resolved.
Many capacitor suppliers such as Vishay and Kemet receive tantalum powder from two large tantalum processors-Cabot Performance Materials of Boyertown, Pa., and H.C. Starck Inc., the Newton, Mass.-based subsidiary of Germany's Bayer Corp.
The processors receive ore under contract from large Australian mines. But when demand exceeds supply, as was true last year, they obtain additional ore on the spot market through trading companies, said Lee Sallade, director of sales and marketing at H.C. Starck.
Sallade said he doesn't know where the traders get all their ore. "I don't buy the ore, someone in Germany does," he said, adding that H.C. Starck receives the tantalum in compound form from Bayer. "There is no way I can identify that ore's origin," he said.
Cabot Performance would not comment for this article.
Said J.A. Wickens, the TIC's secretary general: "Only commercial mines pack and transport ore concentrates in drums marked with their names. But otherwise, there's no way to chemically or geologically tell where the ore comes from."
Processors sometimes receive tantalum ore on a consignment basis in which material is mixed from different sources, further complicating identification, Wickens added. Given the difficulty of tracing the ore's origin, stopping the mining might be the only solution, and the TIC said it will support Congolese authorities trying to remove illegal miners from the protected areas.
But so far, no one in Congo is stepping forward to do this. For one thing, the mining is vital to rival Congolese rebel groups that are wrestling for control of the country, according to a recent Washington Post article. The rebel groups, the article noted, mine and sell tantalum ore, in part to pay their soldiers. The ore is exported to Europe, where traders set prices and sell it to processors.