dered investment. Mark Hersam, a materials expert at Northwestern University, pointed to diamond-like carbon
as a wonder material that later flopped,
only to re-emerge quietly in recent years
in a wide array of products, from coatings on high-performance engines to
razor blades. It is now a $1.7 billion
business worldwide, according to BCC
Among surviving companies, perhaps the most interesting for the electrical industry is Nanocomp Technologies,
a decade-old firm in New Hampshire.
This company has found a way to pro-
duce unusually long CNT strands (also
sheets and tapes)—measured in mil-
limeters, thousands of times longer than
most—that can then be twisted into
“yarns,” which promise to replace some
As for the space elevator dreamers—
they fit into a cherished Yankee tradition. Think of the Transcontinental Railroad. Rocket inefficiencies mean that it
costs the Space Shuttle $64,000 to put a
kilogram into low-earth orbit; an elevator, however, could do that with less
than 18k W hours of electricity—or for
about $2, according to one calculation.
There are some serious folks studying this technology. Many come from
backgrounds at NASA, which funded
an elevator study in 2003. That helped
Michael Laine launch Liftport, which
before the financial crash had 14 employees. When he tried to revive it in
2012 with an $8,000 Kickstarter campaign, he received more than $110,000
from close to 3,500 supporters. ;
Stier is a New York-based reporter, editor,
and communications professional with
more than 25 years of experience. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HAVE EFFORTS TO CURB THE USE OF CONFLICT MINERALS
MADE ANY REAL DIFFERENCE TO DATE?
The controversial U.S. law aimed at curbing the use of “conflict
minerals” in manufactured products saddled business with first-year compliance costs of $700 million—approximately $500,000
per U.S.-listed company obliged to file reports—but it remains
too early to tell whether the new obligation has made more than a
whit of difference on the ground for the people of central Africa.
At this point, it seems a few more years are needed for this noble
experiment to prove its worth—or not.
That fact was well buried in a recent report by the General Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, which
has wrestled for a decade with how to help. The tentative conclusion came on page 36 of the August report (SEC Conflict Minerals Rule) when it stated that “instances of fraud call into question
the integrity of the traceability mechanism.” That understates
the critical problem, which—as a GAO team visiting eastern
Congo (DRC) was told by a well-informed U.N. Group of Experts
member—is that the tags used to certify minerals (tin, tantalum,
tungsten, and gold) are conflict-free are actually “easily obtained”
(i.e., sold on black markets). The tags are a critical node in the
evolving “bag and tag” chain of custody meant to prevent illegal
armed groups from benefitting from the mining. To help remedy
this, the U.S. Agency for International Development is reportedly
“working to introduce a pilot traceability system,” although it is
unclear whether any aspiring silver bullet is possible in such a
That’s the basic Catch- 22 in this troubled region, which in recent decades has endured the world’s worst bloodletting. Traceability is meant to squeeze out illegal groups, but any such system requires some semblance of lawful order, which simply does
not exist. The Congolese military is hardly an improvement, and
unsupervised civilian authorities, underpaid if they get their sala-ries at all, are readily corrupted.
In this morass, even trying to register the marginal changes
that might be taking place is a daunting challenge. Reportedly,
many mines have recently become conflict-free (“green mines”),
but the GAO field team, visiting last November, noted seeing just
a single tantalum mine considered unsafe during the last visit in
2010. Getting there involved slogging through barely passable
muddy roads that the mine owner had to build himself because
state funds do not reach that far from the capital. “Evidence
shows that this situation has not changed much [since the last
visit],” noted the report.
The GAO usefully highlighted that two-thirds of reporting companies were unable to even determine whether the minerals they
use come from this region, which is a major global supplier—
even though 94% insist they have due diligence systems in place.
A mere 4% of companies acknowledged they source from the
region; they continue trying to determine whether their inputs are
“conflict free” or to shift their supply chain elsewhere.
These findings are largely corroborated by an updated survey
of companies conducted by Chris Bayer, an independent researcher who found a wide gap between compliance with the letter of the law (flowing from Section 1502b of Dodd-Frank) and
“good practices” as determined by NGOs active in natural resource governance.
But as dramatic as this law may seem (Bayer correctly calls it
an “unprecedented sunshine law”), it still only requires disclosure
of efforts to determine mineral sourcing. What’s implied is that no
reputable company will risk its brand being associated with tainted
minerals and thus be seen as complicit in the planet’s most intensified misery. The law is forcing transparency throughout the
global supply chain—through downstream suppliers, United
States and foreign—which is bound to be a good thing, even if
still a work in the early stages of measurable progress. —K.S.