Saturday, April 07, 2007

Easter Coltan Message

Tantalum is in the Periodic Table. Coming in at number 73, tantalum is a dark, dense, ductile, very hard, easily fabricated, and highly conductive metal. Tantalum has unique properties for storing electrical charge. In 1802, Swede Anders Ekeberg discovered a new metal in a rare earth mineral called yttrotantalite. He called it tantalum because like Tantalus who could not drink, tantalum would not react with acids. But when scientists studied its powder form, they discovered it could also power a capacitor. Tantalum is the force behind pinhead capacitors which are capable of regulating voltage and storing energy.

With these gifts, they form a formiable part of the science of current flow in cell phone circuit boards. According to 2005 figures there are at least 2 billion mobiles in the world. Capacitors are also used in every DVD player, play station and computer in the world. Capacitors can be found in surgical implants, gas turbines, jet engines, ballistic missiles and nuclear reactors. Tantalum, element number 73, has a massive and growing market. But it doesn’t tantalise all by itself in the ground. In powder form it comes from a refined ore called coltan.

Coltan is African slang for a metallic ore called columbite-tantalite. Columbite-tantalite combines niobium with tantalum. The discoverer of niobium Charles Hatchett also called the chemical columbium. Whatever Hatchett called it, the ore it produces is almost indistructable. Coltan is prized for its very high melting point. Tantalum melts at around three thousand degrees. Well 2,996°C to be exact.

Most of the worlds coltan is found in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC is Congo-Kinshasa, which in its other guise of Zaire saw George Foreman rumbled in the jungle and Scotland get knocked out of the World Cup. But mostly the DRC has been in the news for the wars that have crippled the country for at least ten years. Coltan is the cause of these wars.

Long known as the Belgian Congo, the DRC was once the personal fiefdom of King Leopold II. Booed by Belgians at his own funeral in 1909, Leopold used the Congo as a slave labour mine for rubber and ivory. Though eventually reclaimed by the state, Belgium eventually abandoned the country to its independent fate in 1960. First came president Lulumba was brave but too left-wing for the CIA. He didn't last a year. It was his deputy, General Joseph Mobutu, who would become the chosen one. It was he who became dictator and ruled the country for over thirty years. He was also a staunch US ally during the Cold War. It was he who changed the name to Zaire to promote "African authenticity".

Authentic or not, Mobutu’s reign unravelled after the end of the Cold War. Tensions inside the fractured country were already high but it exploded when the Rwandan genocide spilled over its border. Mobutu died in exile in 1997 while the country settled into war. With Mobutu gone, the country became the Congo again. But it was war with itself and at war with others. Eight other African countries would eventually become embroiled in Congo’s trouble. Today Kinshasa rule extends precariously from the capital. Much produce from the country’s eastern mines, including coltan, end up on the black market.

Here coltan is called “blood tantalum”. In 2000 the dotcom boom caused the price of coltan to skyrocket. The Coltan mines are in the part of Congo held by rebel forces. Miners dig the ore from craters in riverbeds and swill the dirt in washtubs. Just like gold, the heavier coltan settles on the bottom of the tubs, They sell the coltan to intermediaries. If they are lucky, the miners will not lose their $200 monthly pay to bandits. Meanwhile the middle-men bring the coltan to the border city of Goma. Goma is home to the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD). The RCD are the main rebel group who have split up into two factions, one backed by Uganda, one by Rwanda. Both have claims on Goma and traffic is heavy between the countries.

The illegal border traffic from Goma means that neighbours Uganda and Rwanda as well as Burundi export most of the world’s tantalum though none of these countries have any substantial ores of their own. The quarry otherwise known as Australia is also a coltan exporter. But not all of it is mined here. Some of it comes from the Congo. 80 per cent of DRC’s coltan arrives at the Sons of Gwalia processing plants at Wodgina and Greenbushes.

Sons of Gwalia have been an established Australian mining company since 1891 when the Lalor Brothers built a fortune from the Leonora gold mine in Kalgoorlie, WA. Herbert Hoover managed the company before he became US President. The company was worth $1 billion in shares by 2001. But they were caught out trading in unauthorised gold and foreign exchange and went into administration in 2005.

Despite the administration order and high court proceedings, Wodgina and Greenbushes still spit out over 50 percent of global demand, with production in 2003 reported at just over 2 million pounds tantalum oxide contained. A 2004 US Geological Survey showed America received 450 tons of tantalum imports, 57 percent of which was imported directly from Australia.

Sons of Gwalia had just two listed sole tantalum customers. They were the American Cabot Corporation and Bayer's HC Starck from Germany. Cabot is the biggest customer. Most coltan eventually ends up in Pennsylvanian-based Cabot High Performance Materials who make $100 million a year from grinding coltan into powder for capacitors. A lot of coltan also ended up in military parts sold by the Carlyle Group, the global private equity investment firm fronted by George Bush senior.

The recent technology boom caused the price of coltan to skyrocket to as much as $400 a kilogram, as Nokia and Sony struggled to meet demand. It is big business for exporters. The mining and use of coltan ore will only become more intense. Rwanda and Uganda will want to protect their trade. The future of Congo-Kinshasa remains tied up with the future of columbite-tantalite.