The production and distribution of coltan is fraught with both controversy and excitement. The demand for coltan, the refined mineral derived from tantalum mining, has created both a thriving industry and a highly charged political and human rights battle. With so many moving parts, it can be difficult to establish exactly what the future holds for those responsible for providing the world with this vital resource. But, by examining the trends in recent years there are signs that point to a continued bright future for the industries that rely on coltan production.
For years, the prevailing opinion was that the majority of the world's supply of tantalum lay in the ground of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Intensive, largely unregulated artisanal ore extraction practices created inhumane and dangerous working conditions for the minors tasked with extracting it. Recently however, studies have shown this misconstrued "fact" to be wholly untrue, instead pointing to areas of South America and Australia as likely containing a full 40% of the available deposits. It is these countries, where far more stringent extraction regulations are practiced and enforced, which hold the future for the industry.
Fluctuating demand, and similarly unstable prices mean that actual production in each area will continue to be difficult to predict. However, as manufactures of electronics and consumer goods, which rely heavily on coltan, continue to ramp up following the recent economic downturn, it is expected that more companies may once again find tantalum mining to be a profitable endeavor. The development of extraction operations in areas like Brazil, which has been shown to be rich in mineral deposits, are also expected to increase.
While direct extraction is likely to continue to be the primary source, alternative methods of obtaining coltan will play an increasingly important role in the supply chain. As long as the production and consumption of products containing the mineral continues, the scrap market will become an increasingly viable resource. Reclaimed capacitor production scraps, as well as used manufacturing sputtering targets currently provide the bulk of the reclaimed material. Future projections indicate that post-consumer scrap should also become an increasingly useful source of recycled material.
A further important resource are the leftover materials following the tin production process. Tin slag is currently one of the primary sources of tantalum, a trend that shows no signs of slowing as demand for tin continues to be steady. Tin slag currently exists in three primary locations:
Each of these areas have become of increasing interest to companies interested in stockpiling supplies without the need to fund large mining operations.
The worldwide electronics industry continues to thrive, and the increased need for capacitors, sputtering targets, superalloys and chemical compounds which all contain coltan will have the largest direct impact on the future of tantalum mining. The current forecast indicates that demand will continue to be steady after recovering from a significant downturn during the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009. With the recovery of the electronics industry, suppliers have seen a parallel increase in demand, one that shows steady, if only incremental growth, over the next few years.