Tantalum is an important element that is crucial in the manufacturing of a variety of electronics, including capacitors, cell phones, computers, video games and electronic tablets. It is classified as a refractory metal and is derived from tantalum, which has several unique physical, chemical and electrical qualities. It can also be used for creating super alloys that are used in jet engine parts and carbide tools. Because tantalite and columbite are the only substances from which tantalum can be extracted, mining for it can be extremely lucrative. Currently, there are mining operations in Ethiopia, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Congo and Rwanda.
One of the unique properties of tantalum is its extremely high melting point (nearly 3000° Celsius), which is only surpassed by the melting points of tungsten, rhenium and carbon. For this reason, it is often used to create metal alloys that would otherwise be damaged due to their low melting points. Tantalite is also extremely resistant to any damage from water, air or common acids. This nearly indestructible quality is what makes it so desirable for electronic components and computer chips. It is also used in surgical instruments and medical parts such as implant rods and skull plates because it is so resistant to corrosion and rarely triggers rejection by the human body. It has also been used in fine wire mesh that is used to repair damage to certain muscles and nerves.
Tantalum is derived from tantalite or columbite, both of which are metals not generally found in the United States, where the last mine closed in the 1950's. Today, the U.S. gets about 1/5 of its ore from recycling obsolete electronics and other materials. The rest has to be purchased from overseas mining operations. Sadly, some developing countries such as the Congo are able to produce large quantities of the ore by exploiting poor workers who are willing to do back-breaking labour for wages that are barely enough to survive on. Many illegal mining operations also put workers in dangerous situations where they are frequently injured and sometimes killed.
Because it such as important element of virtually all modern electronics, the price tantalum can fluctuate rapidly on the world market depending upon a variety of issues, including where it is mined and how much is currently available. Several years ago, when one of the major Australian mines closed down, the tantalite price jumped considerably as manufacturers scrambled to find legitimate alternative sources. There are also periodic attempts to improve the working conditions for indigenous peoples who are pressed into service in certain countries. When manufacturers and buyers began looking for alternative sources that didn't exploit their workers, the price dropped dramatically in certain third world countries, where the sudden loss of lucrative outlets was drying up.
Today, countries like Brazil, Canada and Australia are mining this crucial metal using fair trade practices and paying their miners a good wage in safe working conditions. These mines have helped to stabilize worldwide prices and promise to become reliable sources for manufacturers who continue to need tantalum in ever-increasing quantities. It is hoped that as additional sources are discovered and new, legitimate mines are opened, the demand for what is often called "conflict tantalite" will dry up completely.