Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tantalum, Coltan and You

For any of you to read this blog, you are most likely operating in a network that uses tantalum capacitors. Your cell phone (smart or dull), your wireless network, and your country's satellites and missile guidance systems use tantalum.  So of course probably does your GPS, if you have one.

Why should you care? Well, at the very least, tantalum is a strategic mineral, as so much of our communications and economy would fail without it. It is also used in turbine alloys, so that redoubles its strategic importance.

 Government foreign policy almost never mentions tantalum, or its source mineral coltan (technically called tantalite).   The silence of governments is a huge clue, not about its supposed unimportance, but about tantalum's overwhelming importance.   In some ways, it is too big to discuss.

What would upset the flow of tantalum into the electronics and turbine manufacturing industries?

Most tantalum in our devices has been freshly extracted from coltan, it was not recycled, so the logical place to look first are what countries produce coltan, and what is going on there.

Countries with coltan resources have shifted in dominance over recent decades.  As of 2013, two thirds of global coltan production, by metric tons, was mined in the cluster of Rwanda, the D.R. Congo and other parts of Africa.

 For those of us who track world news, can we say the g-word, genocide, or the r-word, rape, without thinking of Rwanda or the Congo?   Can anyone think of a UN sanction or other meaningful intervention in either country?  Help me, I haven't found one that had any teeth to it.

So I'm using an old cell phone, about ten years old, a flip phone. My laptop is over five years old.   I'm as dazzled as anyone by the advances in technology, and if I had more money, I might be tempted to silence my conscience and buy new devices, even knowing the dismal origins of tantalum.

If someone can start selling fair-trade electronics with clear-conscience components, that would be a  shock. I'm not holding my breath!  You do what you want.   I haven't offered an easy answer for you or me.

In the long run of plan(t)ing ahead, we need to reuse and recycle this mineral, obviously. Meanwhile, the related human rights abuses are shocking, at least to me, reminding me of what happened when Cotton became King in the 1800s.  How can we be so blind?