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Tantalum the Critical Metal is Also a Conflict Mineral
When the ¨Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act¨ was passed July 21st, 2010 there was a part of the bill that pertained to, ¨Conflict Minerals¨. The goal of the conflict mineral portion of the Dodd-Frank bill was to make companies disclose the origin of the minerals used in their devices. This was a good idea, but is much more difficult than I imagine the policy makers thought it was. How do you track metals that are routinely smuggled out of the DRC into the neighboring countries and then exported legally? So far we have no way of verifying the origin of tantalum.
According to the USGS about 50% of all tantalum is mined in Africa including the DRC, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Rwanda. Each country has its own set of geo-political circumstances that make the mining and exportation of tantalum unique. Recently Ethiopia decided to halt mining of tantalum until they build an operational processing plant that will cost $20 million. The tantalum from Ethiopia was found to have high levels of uranium contamination. Annually Ethiopia was producing 350t of tantalum according to the local newspaper. That is a lot of tantalum to take off the world market. Currently the amount of worldwide production is approximately 1100t. Ethiopia states that it has a 15 year supply of tantalum deposits. The Meles regime sees a powerful revenue stream and will not relinquish control. Unlike the DRC, Ethiopia is considered a stable nation.
In places like the DRC where regional warlords control the mining and exportation of tantalum and other conflict minerals the tracking of the metals is much more difficult. The Dodd-Frank Bill was passed with good intentions but following through has shown to be difficult. If a nation like China struggles to reign in the illegal miners within its own borders, how much more difficult will it be for a nation like the DRC which has a weak government.
What is the big deal? Why is this so important? Tantalum has been deemed a, ¨Critical Metal¨, by the USGS. This amazing element can be found in most of your everyday electronics in the form of capacitors. That iPhone, iPad, smartphone and laptop all contain tantalum. The mineral also is used in national defense applications like guidance systems and jet aircraft engines.
All companies share the responsibility in making sure that the world supplies of natural resources are deemed ethical. I have heard people say that we should not import tantalum and other conflict minerals from the DRC. This also has its consequences. Families rely on this mineral for their livelihood. If mining was to end tomorrow in the DRC thousands of families would no longer have an income. There is no blanket fix, for the conflict mineral issue. In the coming years it would be nice to see companies and countries follow the minerals from source to production. Every company should perform checks along the whole process. I can hope that in the future we might be able to stop using the term, conflict minerals.