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What is Coltan? 6 Facts You Should Know (Updated 2023)

You may not have heard of coltan, but it’s a key raw material found in everyday technology products. From smartphones to laptops to advanced medical equipment, a range of electronic devices have coltan as a fundamental building block.

However, the black metallic mineral can be controversial given that the vast majority comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), an African nation that was locked in civil war in the past, with unrest still continuing today.

As demand for coltan and its by-products grows annually, understanding its value in the global supply chain and our daily lives is important. Here are six coltan facts you should know.

1. What is coltan?

The mineral coltan is one of the resources that is playing an important role in the technological revolution. Coltan ore itself hosts technology minerals tantalum and niobium.

Brazil, Canada and Australia are the leading producers of tantalum and niobium mineral concentrates. However, the DRC is the global leader in tantalum production by quite a large margin, followed by Brazil.

The third largest miner is Rwanda, located next to the DRC in Central Africa. Rwanda was also involved in a bloody civil war that resulted in violence and instability. There has been widespread speculation, including by the United Nations, that some of Rwanda’s mineral production comes from smuggling in resources from other countries.

The aftermath of war has left both nations vulnerable to militia and other groups that often fight over control of the valuable mineral resource and mining sector. In the two nations, coltan is often mined via artisanal operations.

2. What is coltan used for?

Niobium and tantalum are often found together, but have very different properties and applications;

As a report from the US Geological Survey notes, 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. Roughly two-thirds of tantalum is used to manufacture electronic capacitors, a fundamental component of smartphones and other in-demand electronics. Tantalum is extremely ductile and can be drawn into a thin wire. Because it causes no immune response in the human body, it is used to make surgical appliances, as a replacement for bone, as a connector of torn nerves and as a binding agent for muscles.

3. Why is coltan used in mobile phones?

Tantalum has contributed hugely to the miniaturization of handheld electronic devices such as mobile phones as it allows an electrical charge to be stored in small capacitors. For this reason alone, it’s easy to see the value coltan plays in modern life.

4. How is coltan mined?

Coltan may be an important mineral when it comes to the construction of electronics, but as mentioned above, the methods used to mine it are frequently not cutting edge at all.

Coltan is often mined by hand by artisanal miners, with rock and sand being panned and filtered until the mineral sinks to the bottom. This process was common during the gold rush in the mid-1800s. It is not only adults working as artisanal miners; often, children and teenagers are used as child labor in the mines, and conditions are harsh.

5. What is ‘conflict coltan’?

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. There have been reports that neighboring countries in Central Africa, including Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, have smuggled Congolese coltan from the DRC to fund conflicts in the region, although all countries deny that is the case.

‘Rwanda is the preferred route for the illicit trade in these minerals, primarily coltan,’ according to a recent investigative journalism article published by the Pulitzer Center. ‘Unlike the Congolese government, it does not tax mineral imports and the country’s legislation allows imported goods to be recognized as Rwandan goods if they undergo further processing in the country with at least 30% added value.

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 corporations are not funding conflict in the DRC by buying coltan and thus contributing to human rights violations. However, not all electronics companies are transparent about their supply chains.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission’s conflict minerals law, part of the Dodd-Frank Act, requires publicly traded manufacturers to disclose to investors whether any of the tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold (3TG) used in their products may have originated in the DRC. Taking it a step further, the European Parliament voted in May 2015 to move to ban all products containing conflict minerals. The new law came into effect in January 2021.

There has also been a push towards holding mining companies accountable for the integrity and validity of their supply chains. This has led to talks about integrating supply chain due diligence through the blockchain and increasing government intervention to better monitor and control the sourcing of coltan and its by-product metals.

Even so, companies in the US have so far been slow to change how they handle imports of coltan and other conflict minerals. What’s more, former US President Donald Trump threatened to overturn the Dodd-Frank Act in 2017. Ultimately the US Securities and Exchange Commission simply decided not to enforce it; the Biden administration is expected to push for compliance, and the act has recently been in the news again.

In December 2022, the US government signed a memorandum of understanding with the governments of the DRC and Zambia that is seeking to ‘facilitate the development of an integrated value chain for the production of electric vehicle (EV) batteries in the DRC and Zambia, ranging from raw material extraction, to processing, manufacturing, and assembly.’

While the countries are major mineral producers, the mines are largely controlled by Chinese companies, and the resources are processed outside of Africa. If the agreement goes through, this would open the door to domestic processing and development and serve as a way to counter China’s influence in the supply chain. However, there has been criticism of the US’ move due to the labor concerns in these countries.

6. Why is coltan harmful for gorillas?

It’s worth noting that coltan mining has caused significant destruction of gorilla habitats in the DRC.

Gorilla habitats have been reduced as forests are cleared to make way for mining operations, leaving a population of only about 6,800 Grauer’s gorillas — the world’s largest primate. Mountain gorilla habitats have also been impacted by the illegal coltan-mining and smuggling industry. The ongoing conflict and issues around mining and sourcing coltan have prompted calls to the Congolese government and local leaders to strengthen the conflict minerals law.

Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Pistilli, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.

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