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Information @ a Glance

Introduction

  • Coltan is the colloquial African name for columbite-tantalite, a metallic ore used to produce the elements niobium and tantalum.
  • Coltan in Central Africa occurs in streambeds, alluvial deposits and soft rock so is easily extracted by pick and shovel, although the hillsides are steep and fatal collapses are frequent.
  • Coltan is a dull metallic ore found in major quantities in the eastern areas of Congo. When refined, coltan becomes metallic tantalum, a heat-resistant powder that can hold a high electrical charge.

Mining Process and Technology

  • Coltan is mined through a fairly primitive process similar to how gold was mined in California during the 1800s. Dozens of men work together digging large craters in streambeds, scraping away dirt from the surface in order to get to the coltan underground. The workers then slosh water and mud around in large washtubs, allowing the coltan to settle to the bottom due to its heavy weight.
  • The recent technology boom caused the price of coltan to skyrocket to as much as $400 a kilogram at one point, as companies such as Nokia and Sony struggled to meet demand.
  • In order to mine for coltan, rebels have overrun Congo's national parks, clearing out large chunks of the area's lush forests.

Uses

  • Tantalum from coltan is used in consumer electronics products such as cell phones, DVD players, and computers.
  • Tantalum is used primarily for the production of capacitors, particularly for applications requiring a small compact format and high reliability, ranging widely from hearing aids and pacemakers, to airbags, GPS, ignition systems and anti-lock braking systems in automobiles, through to laptop computers, mobile phones, video game consoles, video cameras and digital cameras.

Market

  • The electronics industry is by far the biggest consumer of tantalum but severe shortages of the ore have been experienced in 2000 and early 2001 as a result of the market demand for capacitors.
  • Tantalum-using industries could encourage tantalum processors to establish a longterm, transparently negotiated business deal with a Congolese coltan collective, which would pay a fair  market price for an ethically sourced product.

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