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Where’s the coltan?

Letter from Dave Delling

Minerals – November 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine


Articles by Writers on the Range authors are usually the first thing I read when Colorado Central arrives. I’ve found them to be generally credible and factual and that’s important since some of your readers are impressionable and take whatever is laid out to be so. They are influenced by what they read. I may not agree with the author’s position but I can at least respect their point of view if its based on factual information.

I started into the October issue on page 2 with Stephen J. Lyons’s “Nature Magazines.” Towards the end of the article he gets into talking about a mineral called “coltan” that is supposedly vital for computers, cell phones, etc. He says the demand for coltan has prompted thousands of miners to pour into the Congo where, when they aren’t mining, they poach lowland gorillas. The poaching has drastically reduced the stock of gorillas and according to his figures the kill rate would have averaged at least nine gorillas a day for the past four years. I don’t know much about the gorilla situation except that a decline is probably attributable to a variety of factors like logging, subsistence hunting by the locals, maybe poaching by miners, and other factors we don’t understand.

But coltan: what is it? I know a bit about minerals but the word didn’t ring a bell. So, I dug out my three volume set of “Dana’s System of Mineralogy”, which totals 2,287 pages of detail about every mineral known to or of use to man. No mention of coltan that I could find. So, I’m still wondering.

Mr. Lyons attributes his information to a Joan Lowey with Scripps Howard and he claims to have read all about it in his local paper. So maybe he could provide some basic information such as what elements make up coltan and what’s the chemical formula. How much of it is being produced, where, and by what process? Just some simple stuff so we can all get on the same page with him. Who knows, maybe we could find some in southern Colorado and provide a few good jobs.

Dave Delling

Taos, NM

Lyons responds

Dear Readers:

We forwarded Dellings’s letter to Betsy Marston, editor of the Writers on the Range Syndicate, who in turn passed it on to Stephen J. Lyons, author of the essay which mentioned coltan in our October edition. He responded. Lyons gave his source, an ABC news website, which he quoted:

“Columbite-tantalite — coltan for short — is a dull metallic ore found in major quantities in the eastern areas of Congo. When refined, coltan becomes metallic tantalum, a heat-resistant powder that can hold a high electrical charge. These properties make it a vital element in creating capacitors, the electronic elements that control current flow inside miniature circuit boards. Tantalum capacitors are used in almost all cell phones, laptops, pagers and many other electronics. The recent technology boom caused the price of coltan to skyrocket to as much as $400 a kilogram at one point, as companies such as Nokia and Sony struggled to meet demand.”

[And he concluded with]

We can only hope Colorado doesn’t possess any columbite-tantalite.

Happy autumn

Stephen J. Lyons