Can the provenance of the conflict minerals columbite and tantalite be ascertained by laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy?

Anal Bioanal Chem. 2011 Jul;400(10):3377-82. doi: 10.1007/s00216-011-5015-2. Epub 2011 May 3.


Conflict minerals is a term applied to ores mined in conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuse. Niobium and tantalum are two rare metals whose primary natural occurrence is in the complex oxide minerals columbite and tantalite, the ore of which is commonly referred to as coltan. The illicit export of coltan ore from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is thought to be responsible for financing the ongoing civil conflicts in this region. Determining the chemical composition of an ore is one of the means of ascertaining its provenance. Laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) offers a means of rapidly distinguishing different geographic sources for a mineral because the LIBS plasma emission spectrum provides the complete chemical composition (i.e., "chemical fingerprint") of any material in real time. To test this idea for columbite-tantalite, three sample sets were analyzed. Partial least squares discriminant analysis (PLSDA) allows correct sample-level geographic discrimination at a success rate exceeding 90%.