University of Waterloo
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Coltan is short for columbite-tantalite, a dull metallic ore. When refined, coltan becomes a heat resistant powder, metallic tantalum, which has unique properties for storing electrical charge.
Coltan occurs in granitic pegmatites, pockets where the deep seated molten rock crystallized last. Pegmatites contain many rare metals, as well as enormous crystals of some common minerals.
Coltan is used in many electronics today around the world due to its unique electrical properties. The two man products include cell phones and laptops, though it is found in other electronics as well.
Approximately 80% of the world’s supply of Coltan is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Coltan is mined by hand in the Congo. Their methods are very similar to how gold was mined in California during the 1800s. Groups of men dig basins in streams by scraping off the surface mud to get the Coltan below. Then they “sloth” the water around in large tubs, allowing the Coltan ore to settle to the bottom due to its heavy weight.
Miners invade and damage or even destroy forested areas in search of Coltan. The area where Coltan is mined also contains National Parks, such as the Kahuzi Biega National Park, home of the mountain gorilla. In this park alone the gorilla population has been cut nearly in half. As well, poverty is caused by the displacement of local human populations by the miners and has lead to the gorillas being killed for their meat.
Recycle stations have been set up for old cell phones and laptops so that we are able to recover and recycle the coltan that is already in them. In 2008 approximately 71% of Coltan supply was met by newly mined product, 20% from recycling and the remainder from tin slag inventory.
In 2001 there was a great amount of publicity about the disturbing events which are happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The world took attention and began to listen. Many companies now refuse to obtain their raw materials from unlawful sources. The United Nations also has email and web-based networks in the mining area in Congo called the Integrated Region Information Networks or IRIN. IRIN does its best to protect the habitat, the gorillas as well as the communities in the areas of Coltan mining.