Tungsten, tin, tantalum and gold are amongst the world’s most sought-after minerals – they are often grouped together as 3TG. While most think jewelry when they hear about precious metals like gold, these resources have a wider application in the industrial economy. Used in everything from lab equipment to auto parts, these minerals make the modern world but the majority of these resources are found in politically unstable areas like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Often referred to as conflict minerals, the path from mine to industrial mill is not a simple one and companies looking to procure these metals face a difficult challenge. According to a United Nations Security Council report filed in 2016, it was found that gold “provides the most significant financial benefit to armed groups” and “is the most lucrative and easily smuggled of the natural resources in the eastern… [DRC].”
Lobby groups have shed light on the devastating consequences of illegal exploitation of natural resources and governments have responded accordingly. In 2010, the United States passed the Dodd-Frank Act compelling companies to ensure they are sourcing their minerals responsibly. The European Union followed suit by enacting their own import regulations on conflict minerals in 2017 with all companies required to report on their supply-chain strategies by 2021.
Now that companies have clear direction to steer clear of conflict minerals – the next question was how they were going to do it. One Berlin-based business believes they might have the answer to that question. CEO Nathan Williams founded MineSpider in 2017 with the intention of adapting the bitcoin encryption technology so mining companies could better track their mineral shipments. Using the MineSpider platform, they would be able to comply with government reporting regulations without revealing sensitive supply chain sources to competitors.
“There’s a lot of thoughts on how to keep sensitive data private,” Williams said. “The problem with private blockchain, if brands want to have their own private blockchain, a miner would have five different systems to use.”
MineSpider worked around this problem by building a layered blockchain system on Ethereum, an open-source platform available to developers who want to design apps and other programs using blockchain technology. Williams adapted the encryption method to create files that can be tagged to a shipment of minerals via a unique QR code label. The truckload of tungsten, tantalum or tin can then be tracked from mine, to smelter, to manufacturer without worrying about inadvertently sourcing from war-torn territories.
“We have two layers – a data layer and an Ethereum layer. Ethereum is the blockchain immutable layer, and on that we are storing a ton of material, how much in shipments and the grade,” Williams explained. “Then there is a link to a packet of data. One layer of data is data you want everyone to see. Another layer is private data that needs to be registered as unchangeable, which is only available to customers. The third layer is key – we encrypt the first two layers, and then asymmetrically encrypt that with the key of… [the] customer.”
They now have a finished product and are currently exploring partnership opportunities with several large companies – including a large German auto manufacturer. “We have secured our first investments, won multiple startup contests, hired some terrific team members, received a lot of press coverage, and are moving forward with a pilot project soon – all because we have a solution that truly satisfies the industry requirements.”