Relatively few people will have heard of coltan; but if you own an mobile phone, DVD player or laptop, there is a good chance some of the essential components will have come from DR Congo as the country houses more than 70% of the world’s coltan reserves.
With ever-increasing demand from electronic companies in China, the United states and Europe, coltan has become one of the most prize minerals in the world with prices soaring to hundreds of dollars per kilogram.
In its rawest form, coltan comes from a black, heavy metal called tantalite, a blend of iron and manganese ore which yields the metal tantalum whose strength, chemistry and electronic properties make it ideal for use in many hi-tech and medical applications. It is used to create pinhead capacitors which can store energy in the form of an electronic charge.
Mining of the mineral is relatively simple, involving pans, sluices and sifting – reminiscent of the techniques used during the California god Rush of 1849.