Do you have a cell phone? If you don’t, then I’m quite surprised. The truth is, I detest their obnoxious public attributes, their trendy appeal, and the fact that I am paying a lot of money to babble with only a couple people. But alas, even I am beginning to want one-they’re just so darn convenient (and I am tired of being harassed by my friends). A while back, I had taken a sociology class that, in one of the textbook chapters, revealed the direct correlation between cell phones and the raging war in the
Now with the
opportunity to research the subject, I have begun to find out the truth about
the correlation between cell phones and the war in the DRC, including details
involving the mining of coltan, sale, and production. I am going to tell you what the situation
really is involving the DRC, discuss what coltan is and how it is produced, and
reveal what products result from the manipulation of this valuable metal.
along with the support of various corporations are attempting to dissolve
illegal mining in the Congo by encouraging people not to buy from suspected
rebel traders. This is difficult to do
because it is nearly impossible to source the origin of any tantalum shipment,
since it is sold several times in regional markets before it reaches
industries. Corporations who benefit
from tantalum in their products deny any knowledge of their shipments deriving
from rebel sources. However, the civil
war will continue as long as rebel groups can reap the benefits of mining
tantalum and selling it to eager corporations as the modern world demands new
high-tech products (Essick).
So what exactly is coltan? In the DRC, it is the nickname for the ore
columbite-tantalite. The sole reason it
is mined is to produce tantalum, which is a metal that can be refined and
highly valuable on the world market. Tantalum
is the element Ta and is considered a transitional metal, with an atomic number
of 73 and an atomic mass of 180.95 (Bentor).
The metal is prized for its useful attributes including having a very
high melting point (2,996°), having good
malleability and ductility, being resistant to corrosion and most acids, and
having a great electrical conduct (Frost).
The primary mineral containing tantalum is tantalite, located in
mines around the globe, but mostly in
the DRC, coltan is found in alluvial deposits and streambeds, so that all
miners have to do is loosen the substance with picks and shovels and sieve it
through mesh. The coltan is then bagged
and sold cheaply to local traders, who in turn sell it to many regional traders,
who sell it to international mineral trading companies. Processing companies buy it up, the two main
being H.C. Starck and Cabot, isolate the tantalum and turn it into a powder for
manufacturers to buy and produce capacitors which sell to high-tech industries
including Compaq, Dell, IBM, Motorola, and Nikia. Tantalum today sells at around $100 a pound,
compared to $50 before 2000 and $400 after with the exponential demand for it
paralleling the world’s demand for high-tech products. The
tantalum is difficult and requires several steps. First, the tantalum must be extracted from
the ore and separated from Niobium, the element near always found in
combination with tantalum. This is
accomplished by treating the ores with a mixture of hydrofluoric and sulfuric
acids at high temperatures, which then dissolve the elements along with many
others. A purified solution of tantalum
is created by filtration via solvent extraction using methyl isobutyl ketone, a
process known as liquid ion exchange.
The tantalum values in the solution are converted into potassium
tantalum fluoride, tantalum oxide, tantalum carbide, tantalum chloride, and
lithium tantalite, which are the only chemical compositions of tantalum of any
economic value. The tantalum powder used
in capacitors that are put into various electronic devices is produced from
tantalum fluoride through the process of sodium reduction at high temperature
(Tantalum). Below is a chart summarizing
the many uses of tantalum in modern day products.
Increased high temperature deformation, control of grain growth
- Camera lenses
- High index of refraction for lens
Tantalum capacitors for electronic circuits in medical appliances such as hearing aids, pacemakers, also in airbag protection systems, ignition and motor control modules, GPS, ABS systems in automobiles, laptop computers, cellular phones, Playstation, video cameras, digital still cameras.
High reliability characteristics and low failure rates, operation over a wide temperature range from –55 to +125°C, can withstand severe vibrational forces, small size per microfarad rating/electrical storage capability.
Tantalum fabricated sheets, plates, rods, wires
- Sputtering targets
- Applications of thin coatings of
tantalum, tantalum oxide or nitride coatings to semi-conductors
Chart 1. Tantalum-Raw Materials and Processin.
As you can see, tantalum is a valuable modern resource used in a variety of important fields. 6.6 million pounds of tantalum were used in 2000, approximately 60% of this used in electronics (Essick). Tantalum powder, the key component of electronic devices, makes up 60% of the market value of tantalum (Tantalum). Tantalum capacitors are proficient to function in small spaces, are reliable, and can withstand temperatures between –55°C and 125°C, so they are used profusely in cell phones, cameras, and computers. Tantalum is used in the alloys of the hottest part of a jet engine because of its high heat resistance capabilities. Tantalum is the choice mineral used in heart pacemakers because of its reliability and long life and for the fact that it is completely resistant to body fluids. In this respect, it can be used to reconstruct joints and tissues as well. It is used in the chemical industry, coating equipment for protection against corrosion and tantalum carbide is so hard it can cut through steel easily (Frost). With a mineral this valuable, it’s a good thing that tantalum is not being depleted in mines around the world. Other deposits around the world are being located to mine and large quantities of the tantalum are being recycled (Wickens).
with my research I found out that there is connection between the production of
cell phones and the war in DRC, although it not is not as drastic as I first
heard. Even though the war is still
enduring, both the U.N. and corporations are working to keep illegal coltan off
the market. It was comforting to find
out that most of the tantalum used comes from legal mines in
Bentor, Yinon. Chemical Element.com - Tantalum. May 30, 2005
Essick, Kristi. “Guns, Money and Cell Phones.” The Industry Standard Magazine 11 June
Harris, Paul. “
(PINR). 5 Aug.
Redmond, Ian. Coltan Boom, Gorilla Bust. Gorilla Journal 2001
Tantalum-Raw Materials and Processin.
Wickens, Judy. Developments In the Tantalum Market. T.I.C. Presentation. 2004.