Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"Coltan" - African Niobium and Tantalum Ore.

I first heard the word "coltan" on a recent television documentary about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Africa. Coltan is a black, metallic ore which is a source of "Columbium" (now called Niobium) and Tantalum, hence the name. Since tantalum is used to make high-performance capacitors as find application in mobile-phones, DVD players, video game players (playstations), laptop computers, electronic cameras, pacemakers, hearing-aids, airbags, GPS, ignition-systems and anti-lock braking systems in cars, it accordingly underpins a highly lucrative electronics industry. The thread of the TV documentary was that the extraction and sale of coltan onto Western markets provides funding for the war that is going on in the Congo, during which 5.4 million people have been killed in the past decade.

The Rwandan occupation of Eastern Congo was a principal reason that the Congo was prevented from exploiting its own bequest of coltan, much of which is mined illegally and smuggled across borders into Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. It is reputed that prisoners-of-war and children are forced to work in the coltan mines. In consequence of the problem of telling legitimate and bootleg mining operations apart, a number of electronics manufacturers have boycotted Africa entirely as a source of coltan, not wishing to aid any funding of the occupation of the Congo by militia groups.

Congo actually produces under 1% of the world's tantalum, which is also mined in Brazil, Australia, Canada, China, Ethiopia and Mozamboque. The metal is also a by-product of tin-production in Malaysia and Thailand. In view of its profitable nature, there are potential future production projects in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Greenland, China, Mozambique, Canada, Australia, the United States, Finland, Afghanistan and Brazil. I doubt the war in Afghanistan is entirely in the service of obtaining tantalum, but I do wonder what resources may lie there, as wars are always about resources (and power) in one form or another.

That there are deposits of tantalum in Greenland makes an interesting follow-up to my last article to the effect that the melting Greenland ice may expose and render viable the extraction of rare-earth metals and one begins to wonder what resources may become available, of materials and energy, as climate change re-sculpts the land and water-scape of the Earth.

Related Reading.

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