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Roger Weller, geology instructor       

Tantalite and Columbite
Lyndsey Gruey
Physical Geology
Spring 2006

The mineral that started a war, columbite-tantalite.


As the world's demand for technology increases, so to does the demand of the materials to build the equipment. One such material is columbite-tantalite. This mineral is commonly used to make cell phones and computer chips. So what is this magic mineral and where does it come from?


What is columbite-tantalite?


           Also called Coltan, columbite-tantalite is a metallic ore made up of niobium and tantalum. When refined, columbite-tantalite becomes heat resistant tantalum and has distinctive electrical storage properties. In 1998 alone the USA used 525 tons of tantalum, 60% which was used in tantalum capacitors that are essential to control current flow in cell phone circuit boards.    


Where is columbite-tantalite found?


            Columbite-tantalite found chiefly in eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire. It is estimated that the DRC holds 80% of the world’s supply of columbite-tantalite.

The mining of columbite-tantalite.

            Columbite-tantalite is mined by hand in the Congo. The process involves groups of men digging basins in streams by scrapping off the surface mud. Then they agitate that water, which causes the ore to settle to the bottom of the crater where it is collected by the miners. A group can collect approximately one kilo a day.

            Because of the high demand of tantalum its value rose from $65 a kilogram to about $600 a kilogram. Its value per kilogram is now about $100.    

What does columbite-tantalite look like?

Tantalite (Photo courtesy of R. Weller)

Tantalite (Photo courtesy of R. Weller)  

Negative side effects of the demand for columbite-tantalite:

            One of the least reported on negative side effects of columbite-tantalite mining is the destruction of the habitat of the Mountain Gorilla. The eastern region of the DRC houses the  Kahuzi Biega National Park, home to the Mountain Gorilla. The population of the Mountain Gorilla in the park has been decreased from 258 to a mere 130 as the ground is cleared for easier access to the columbite-tantalite. In the last 5 years the number of gorilla in eight DRC national parks has declined 90%, leaving only 3,000. In addition the clearing of habitat the gorillas are in danger of being killed for food. As the miners move across the land they are displacing populations of people leaving a wake of poverty and destroyed land behind them, those people, in turn, are killing gorillas and selling their meat as “bush meat” to the miners and rebel armies.

            Because of the damage being done to the gorilla population and their habitat many companies have started to look for better, safer sources for columbite-tantalite. It has been speculated that “Gorilla Safe” cell phones could be marketed, similarly to the “Dolphin Safe” tuna.     

            The other, more known and major, negative side effect of the mining is the civil war in the Congo.  This major conflict over natural resources had taken over three million lives, mostly civilian, as of 2002.

            The war started in 1998 when Congolese rebel forces along with forces from Rwanda and Uganda commandeered eastern Congo and began taking over mining area and attacking villages. Soon the Rwandan army was making almost $20 million dollars a month mining coltan. Because of the high demand for this mineral the fighting continues with no end in sight.