It's in the majority of electronic devices on the market now. Demand for it is constantly growing. Without it, the development of many gaming consoles, phones, computers, and other advanced electronics would slow or even stop. Yet only a handful of consumers know what it is. It's called coltan, and it's a mineral that has increased in popularity at an exceptional rate since its ability to yield tantalum and niobium was first discovered.
Learning about coltan is important for a number of reasons. First, understanding the current coltan price helps you understand the current cost of the electronics powered by the mineral. But more importantly, some companies do not emphasize ethical sourcing. Some of the areas where the mineral can be found have struggling and weak central government authority, leading to the possibility that workers' rights are being abused including forced labor, unsafe conditions, and a host of other dangers. Understanding all of this is key to being an educated consumer of technology.
Coltan is composed of columbine and tantalite. These are essentially impure forms of niobium and tantalum which, when refined, yield the necessary elements for production. Tantalum is particularly useful; it is a component in virtually every piece of electronic equipment because of its capability to act as a capacitor within a high-performance circuit. With the tolerances and performance requirements of computers and other devices growing ever more demanding, tantalum has proven consistently effective and capable. As a result, demand for it has risen noticeably.
Extraction projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo have come under international scrutiny and criticism for their practices. Much like conflict diamonds, there is evidence of poor conditions and forced labor at these sites. Strangely, unlike diamonds, tantalum and niobium are not exclusively or primarily found in the region. There is no reason why companies cannot obtain these elements from somewhere that can provide clear tracking, ethical sourcing, and proper treatment for workers.
In addition, proceeds from sales within this specific region of Africa may be used to fund the continued violence there. Ethical companies will avoid this entirely simply by carefully sourcing any materials they use. However, there are still many which are content to look the other way. This problem is not as widely exposed as the similar circumstances surrounding diamond mining and with less publicity and attention comes less focus and typically less change.
The demand is certainly growing, but the mineral is not scarce and supply is increasing roughly apace. It is widely estimated that the developed nations of the world can provide much more than is currently being extracted. Because deposits exist across the continents, there isn't an issue with dwindling supply in the way that exists for diamonds.
It seems likely that tantalum will continue to be useful for technology even as innovation continues in the coming years. There is no evidence that its conductive properties will be outpaced quickly so demand seems likely to rise. It is important to understand the full impact of what this means for companies around the world, and in particular what it means to take the time to select ethically and responsibly sourced product.