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Publié le 03/09/2021

Thanks to Alliance and Innosuisse, researchers at Unil have developed a geo-forensic passport to ensure the traceability of metals. Métalor, one of the world's leading suppliers of precious metals, uses this innovation to source ethical gold.

Genesis of the project...

Dr. Barbara Beck, professor-researcher at the Faculty of Geosciences of the University of Lausanne, is a specialist in archeometry. She had developed a method to measure the signature of lead and silver ores from mines in the canton of Valais and to compare the results with that of archaeological objects, in order to determine the trade routes from the Neolithic to 1777. In 2015, believing her method to be scientifically robust, she became aware of the issue of ethical gold. She then contacted Swiss refiners. The company Metalor, concerned with continuously improving its standards of responsible sourcing and compliance, agreed to test her method.

The method

The aim is to confirm the geological and geographical origin of the ore on arrival at the refiner, and to avoid working with mines that are not environmentally and worker friendly. The collaboration began with a period during which Metalor shared data with the research team at Lausanne University. The initial results were promising, but to reinforce the model, further researches were needed with more gold samples from different sources. This led to the idea of submitting an Innosuisse project with the objective of creating a tool to validate the supplier's declaration of origin of gold. The study is carried out in two steps: a statistical evaluation based on chemical analyses and then, if necessary, a more in-depth geochemical and isotopic study. The results are compiled in a geoforensic passport, based on scientific approaches that are virtually impossible to falsify.

What is the interest of this geoforensic passport?

Firstly, it meets a fundamental need of the refiner: the implementation of a tool that is easy to integrate into the refining process routine, with no additional costs. Secondly, it allows the refiner to control the supply of gold, without having to resort to tedious sample collection in the mines. The Innosuisse project is nearing completion and as Barbara Beck explains: "The link between gold and its place of origin can be confirmed by measuring precise physico-chemical parameters such as chemical and isotopic compositions. We were able to demonstrate that each gold mine has its own signature that can be indicated in a geoforensic passport. Switzerland is one of the world's largest importers of gold and refines the equivalent of 70% of the production. "This new 'geoforensic passport' is a real disruptive innovation," says Mr. Jodry, head of laboratories and R&D at Metalor. The results of the project have been published in several international journals and in the media. In addition to mines, refiners and jewelers, regulatory authorities are also interesting partners, as they can help to spread the concept of the gold fingerprint. The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) is a London-based trade association that manages the rules of the global gold and silver market. It praised the scientific and innovative approach proposed by Unil and Metalor for its contribution to confidence and transparency in the precious metals trade.

What was Alliance's role?

An Alliance consultant specializing in materials discussed the best way to present the project. While the purely economic argument was difficult, the objectives met a real market demand, as well as a desire to offer sustainable gold channels. The association, the researchers and Metalor structured the main objectives and scientific challenges of the project, as well as the budget. Alliance support has enabled the partners to obtain Innosuisse funds and finance research.