W A S H I N G T O N -- You may not have heard of coltan, but you have it in your cell phone, laptops, pagers and other electronic devices. It is important to everyday communication in the United States, but it is making the conflict in Congo more complicated.
What Is Coltan?
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.
How Is Coltan Mined?
Coltan is mined through a fairly primitive process similar to how gold was mined in California during the 1800s. Dozens of men work together digging large craters in streambeds, scraping away dirt from the surface in order to get to the coltan underground. The workers then slosh water and mud around in large washtubs, allowing the coltan to settle to the bottom due to its heavy weight. A good worker can produce one kilogram of coltan a day.