You might not have heard of coltan, but it’s likely that it is present in products you use every day. From smartphones to laptops to medical equipment, coltan is key for a range of electronic devices.
However, the mineral is often the subject of controversy given that it comes from the conflict-ridden Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). So what is coltan? Here are five key facts about coltan that you need to know.
1. It’s where tantalum and niobium come from
Coltan, or columbite-tantalite, is an ore from which niobium and tantalum are extracted. As a 2014 report from the US Geological Survey notes, the minerals are often found together, but have very different properties and applications; nearly 80 percent of the world’s niobium is used in high-strength, low-alloy steels, while tantalum is key for the world’s electronics industry.
The US Geological Survey lists Brazil, Canada and Australia as the leading producers of tantalum and niobium mineral concentrates. However, in terms of mined tantalum production, Rwanda comes in first place (even though it’s an open secret that much of Rwanda’s mineral production comes from other countries), followed by the DRC. In these countries, coltan is often mined through artisanal operations.
2. Coltan provides the tantalum used in smartphones
About two-thirds of tantalum is used to construct electronic capacitors, a fundamental component of cell phones and other electronics. Tantalum has contributed hugely to the miniaturization of handheld electronic devices as it allows electricity to be stored in small capacitors. In other words, coltan is a key component of modern life.
Tantalum is also extremely ductile and can be drawn into a thin wire. Because it causes no immune response in humans, it is also used to make surgical appliances, as a replacement for bone, as a connector of torn nerves and as a binding agent for muscles.
3. It’s mined by hand
Coltan may be an important mineral when it comes to modern electronics, but as mentioned above, the methods used to mine it are not modern at all. As a report from the Daily Mail explains, coltan is often mined by hand in the DRC, with rock and sand being panned and filtered until the mineral sinks to the bottom.
Even at the Luwow mine, now deemed a “conflict-free” mine, conditions are harsh. The Daily Mail states that 12-hour days are often required, and that “mine safety procedures are non-existent.”
4. It’s a conflict mineral
Many investors are no doubt aware of tantalum’s conflict mineral status, so it should come as no surprise that coltan falls under the same banner. According to ABC News, there are reports that neighboring countries, including Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, smuggle coltan from the DRC to fund conflicts in the region, although all countries deny that is the case.
“By one estimate, the Rwandan army made at least $250 million over a period of 18 months through the sale of coltan, even though no coltan is mined in Rwanda,” states ABC.
So where does all of this coltan end up? Its path is hard to trace, but regulatory authorities are doing their best to ensure that electronics companies are not funding conflict in the DRC by buying coltan. For example, the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s conflict minerals rule, part of the Dodd-Frank Act, requires publicly traded manufacturers to disclose to investors whether any of the tantalum, tin, gold and tungsten used in their products may have originated in the DRC. Taking it a step further, European Parliament voted in May 2015 to move to ban all products containing conflict minerals.
That said, companies in the US have so far been slow to change how they handle imports of coltan and other conflict minerals. What’s more, the Dodd-Frank Act is currently slated for an overhaul under US President Donald Trump.
5. It’s harmful for gorillas
Coltan mining has also caused significant destruction of gorilla habitats in the DRC. As Cellular News notes, “the U.N. Environment Program has reported that the number of eastern lowland gorillas in eight Dem. Rep. of Congo national parks has declined by 90% over the past 5 years, and only 3,000 now remain.” Gorilla habitats have been reduced as forests are cleared to make way for mining operations.
In addition, the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada states that there have been reports of armed rebel groups and miners “eating meat from chimpanzees, gorillas, and elephants in the Kahuzi Biega National Park and on the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.”
This is an updated version of an article first published by the Investing News Network in 2015.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Shaw, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.