The columbite-tantalite mining industry took a roller coaster ride in 2011, with prices for the valuable metal peaking at $150 per pound. In the first quarter of 2012, the priced dropped and then leveled off at around $110 per pound. Will the price of tantalum remain stable in the coming months, or is it likely to soar again as new electronics create a demand for more of the metal from conflict-free sources?
There were several factors contributing to the rapid increase in tantalum prices around the world in 2011, not only because of the increased desire by consumers to own more cutting-edge products that required highly conductive capacitors. The introduction of new lines of smart phones and various incarnations of electronic tablet computers spurred incredible demand, particularly in China, where an immense market for consumer electronics opened up.
The increased demand for coltan shot prices up higher than normal in 2011 in part because there wasn't as much available in world metals markets. The global economic crisis of the preceding years had forced the closing of columbite-tantalite mines in several countries. Unfortunately, mining operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other conflict areas continued to supply the ore, but at higher than normal cost.
With more than usual supplies of tantalum on the market in the first quarter of 2012, the price of tantalum dropped. In some cases, mines that were recently reopened to supply a hungry market once again closed their doors. Part of this is because some manufacturers are now considering alternative metals for conductors, but in general this hasn't been entirely successful. Other available metals don't have the superior conductivity or corrosion resistance found in columbite-tantalite, so the use of alternative metals will most likely be confined to lower end products.
Because the need for conflict-free coltan continues to grow, some companies are now turning to countries such as Australia, Costa Rica and Brazil to provide them with columbite-tantalite ore for capacitors and other electronic equipment.
For the remainder of this year and into 2013, industry experts agree that the price of tantalum will rise in response to new demand. Part of this can be linked to the increasing prevelance of the iPad and iPhone platforms as well as serious competitors. The emerging cell phone and tablet markets in China and India will also play a role in growth of the coltan market.
In response to U.S. trade restrictions and global condemnation of ores mined in conflict zones, many capacitor and electronics manufacturers continue to look for viable alternative sources. The increased interest in coltan from mining operations in countries such as Costa Rica and Canada will spur a rise in the price of tantalum, although it will tend to be a healthy, relatively steady increase that should level off as more manufacturers come to rely on alternative sources and these sources increase their capacity to match demand.