Last week, all the media echoed a breakthrough for Spanish science and industry. A CSIC team has managed to develop a coltan extraction and purification system in an old tin mine located in A Penouta, Ourense.
This discovery has obvious implications in the region, such as the opportunity to revitalize the battered mining industry in the area and create new jobs. But there are other secondary benefits not so obvious to the naked eye. For example, the pacification of the war conflicts in the Congo or prevent the extinction of the gorilla. In this article we will talk about the whole shock wave that this small Galician mine causes.
Technically, coltan is not a mineral, but the combination of two: columbite and tantalite. In fact, the term “coltan” itself comes from the fusion of both words. These two minerals usually appear together in nature, combined in different proportions depending on the mine.
Until 1990, only chemists and geologists were interested in coltan, since the two minerals that formed it were a natural source of two chemical elements discovered late: tantalum and niobium. By purifying them, both elements form a silver-looking metal, which aroused a slight interest in some jewelers to make cheaper pieces without resorting to silver.
The largest producer at that time was a country in central Africa called Zaire, which is currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Coltan is not very common, but it happened that there was a large site in this region and, more importantly, it was very superficial. It was not necessary to build a very deep mine, but anyone with a peak could get coltan from the ground if he dug a couple of meters or if he put himself in the riverbed with a net, following techniques used during the gold rush.
But in 1990 everything changed completely. It was found that tantalum was capable of conducting large electrical charges without overheating, and that made it an ideal candidate for the construction of electric capacitors in the first mobile phones. Manufacturers began to demand large amounts of coltan from Zaire who, unaware of its usefulness, saw how the demand and the price that other countries were willing to pay increased more and more.
Under normal circumstances, a developing country like Zaire could have benefited from this influx of money. The government can regulate exports and use taxes to improve the living conditions of its inhabitants. But at the end of the 20th century, Zaire was in deep political conflict.
In 1996, the dismissed Government of the neighboring country of Rwanda moved to Zaire for refuge, causing a war between the two countries. The conflict was escalating until the so-called African World War between 1998 and 2003, with the participation of nine countries and up to two hundred tribes fighting in the form of guerrillas in the Congolese jungle.
At that time, the newly established Democratic Republic of the Congo was the epicenter of the conflict, a battlefield without law or government that could do anything. Probably the worst possible scenario for the sudden massive influx of money through the coltan.
The coltan mines were not as tightly regulated as the gold and silver mines of the settlers, but everyone was riding their own excavation in secret. Each terrain was then controlled by different mafias that collected the benefits to support their favorite guerrilla or political group. More money caused better weapons and a worsening war.
And that’s not all. The entrance of the mafias caused many farmers to leave their farms in search of coltan. With only one week of searching the rivers, they already earned more money than during the whole year, managing to pay the magnate on duty. This further destabilized the precarious food economy that had formed in the country and the famine made its appearance. There was the paradox that some of its inhabitants had money but no access to food. It ended up increasing the intensive hunting and the consumption of native species, like the gorillas, whose population plummeted in the new century until entering danger of extinction.
The African World War is considered the longest and bloodiest conflict in Africa, and was practically a genocide for the inhabitants of the Congo. Approximately 3.8 million people died during the conflict, and the worst part is that most were due to hunger and curable diseases. Resoluble if it were not because an endless war was taking place in its territory.
Luckily, as of the year 2000 many technology manufacturers began to realize the problem, and began commissioning coltan from the scarce mines located in other countries such as Australia. Its price was higher, but it was considered a measure of responsible consumption since they could alleviate the conflict by cutting the flow of money. Luckily, in 2003 the war ended under the Pretoria Agreement, although with some subsequent recurrences.
The problem with coltan in other countries is that its quantity is smaller and it takes much longer to extract the quantities required by current technology. This led to delays in some technology releases, such as the Playstation 2 game console, which Sony had to delay for a year due to lack of coltan.
Today, some technology companies that keep asking for the African coltan, especially those located in the United States. Ironically, the largest current exporter of coltan in Africa is not the Congo, but Rwanda. They do not have a single deposit of this material, but they continue to usurp and export the coltan of Congo today.
Given this situation, we can imagine the enormous importance of the creation of coltan mines in Galicia. They are the first mines in Europe that can supply coltan without the need for long transport, so they have a guaranteed demand. This can allow advancing technological development without having blood-stained hands. The price of a new mobile should never extend a war.
DON’T KEEP IT UP:
- To solve this problem, there are investigations to develop other electronic components that do not depend on tantalum, but currently this element is still of greater importance for technology.
- Lunar, Rosario and Martínez Frías, Jesus. Minerals of our century. El Coltan: Strategic mineral of the 21st century. Natural History: Rev. Royal Spanish Society of Natural History, October, 1: 53. 2003.
- Mantz, Jeffrey William. “Improvisational Economies: Coltan Production in the Eastern Congo. ” Social Anthropology, vol. 16, no. 1, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, July 2008, pp. 34–50
- Kean, Sam. The Waning Spoon: And Other Veracious Stories of Madness, Love and World History from the Periodic Table of the Elements. Ariel, 2011.