Shift in Global Tantalum Mine Production, 2000–2014
Tantalum has a unique set of properties that make it useful in a number of diverse applications. The ability of the metal to store and release electrical energy makes it ideally suited for use in certain types of capacitors that are widely used in modern electronics. Approximately 60 percent of global tantalum consumption is in the electronics industry. The ductility and corrosion resistance of the metal lends itself to application in the chemical processing industry, and its high melting point and high strength retention at elevated temperatures make it an important component of super alloys used in aircraft engines.
As a major industrialized nation, the United States is a leading consumer of tantalum and tantalum-containing products. Domestic deposits typically are of low grade, and no tantalum has been recovered from mining activities in the United States since 1959. Consequently, the United States is nearly completely reliant on imports to meet its domestic consumption of tantalum for economic and national security needs. The recovery of tantalum from mine production is economically viable in only a few countries.
Although developed countries dominated tantalum mine production in the early 2000s, production today is dominated by countries in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. There is concern that the sales of minerals, including columbite-tantalite or “coltan,” a mineral from which tantalum is derived, have helped finance rebel groups accused of violating human rights as part of the continuing armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and neighboring countries. These accusations have prompted the passage of legislation in the United States to curb the procurement of these mineral commodities, referred to as “conflict minerals,” from the DRC. Specifically, section 1502 of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Public Law 111–203, 124 Stat. 2213–2218) requires companies that source tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold (3TG) to perform due diligence on their supply chains to determine if the materials they use originate from the DRC or adjoining countries (defined as sharing a border with the DRC).
The DRC, Rwanda, and surrounding countries are not globally significant sources of tin, tungsten, or gold, accounting for only about 2 percent of the mined world supply for each of these elements. The region has, however, evolved to become the world’s largest producer of mined tantalum.
A further complication of the production of tantalum stems from the opacity of the tantalum market. Unlike most base and precious metals, tantalum concentrates are not publicly traded through commodities exchanges but are bought and sold through networks of dealers and on contract between producers and consumers, some of whom may not provide accurate statistical data concerning the amounts, origins, and destination of the concentrates. Some price data can be found in trade journals or in other publications; however, there are no recognized official set exchange prices for either concentrate or tantalum metal. Because price is determined by negotiation between buyer and seller, published prices for concentrate are probably not representative of global prices paid for concentrate. The development of a mine-to-market supply-chain analysis is complicated and difficult because many of the industry participants that produce, trade, and consume tantalum do not publish statistical information, contracts are long term between miners and buyers, and much of the industry is vertically integrated.
As a result of these and other considerations, tantalum is considered by many to be a “critical” commodity. This fact sheet identifies and addresses the major geographic shifts in the source of mine production of tantalum which have occurred over the past 15 years, some of the factors that drove this shift, and some of the related consequences.
One of the activities of the U.S. Geological Survey National Minerals Information Center (USGS-NMIC) is to analyze global supply chains and characterize major components of mineral and material flows from ore extraction through processing to first tier products. These analyses support the core mission of the USGS-NMIC as the Federal entity responsible for the collection, analysis, and dissemination of objective, unbiased, factual information on minerals essential to the U.S. economy and national security.
Bleiwas, D.I., Papp, J.F., and Yager, T.R., 2015, Shift in global tantalum mine production, 2000–2014: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2015–3079, 6 p., http://dx.doi.org/10.3133/fs20153079.
ISSN: 2327-6932 (online)
ISSN: 2327-6916 (print)
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