Coltan and Mobile Phones: The Wonders & the Sad Truth About It

Mobile Phone

When talking about the materials of which mobile phones are made, we often hear silicon, plastic, aluminum, and iron — but not coltan. Despite the critical role that it plays in electronic devices, including our phones, it’s a component that is almost unheard of among laymen. Without coltan, though, your phone won’t work properly, or not at all. It will surprise you what wonders it can do for your mobile companion. But, you’ll also be horrified by the sad truth about it.


What Is Coltan?

Phoro by Sinisa Maric from Pixabay

Coltan, short for columbite-tantalite, is a conflict mineral that is usually mined by hand. It’s a grayish, metallic ore that may look like just an ordinary rock to you. But for those with an eye for it, it’s a precious soil deposit that makes technological advances run.

It has much more uses than you can imagine. It is a component for corrective glasses, camera lenses, and even jet engines and turbines. The majority of its demand, however, comes from consumer electronic use. Coltan has to be refined before it can be used on electronic devices. From this raw material comes niobium and tantalum powder, which makes tantalum capacitors.


Uses of Coltan on Mobile Phones

Basically, tantalum capacitors are coltan’s final form that you will see should you decide to cut your phone open. They look like pellets that have markings on them. But, what exactly are their uses for your phone?


1. They Make Your Phone Smaller

It might be partly thanks to columbite-tantalite that we have compact phones. Tantalum capacitors are extremely capacitive, meaning it only takes a small volume of them to collect and store electrical charges. This makes them an ideal material for shrinking your devices or making room for more powerful processors.

Also read: Best Compact Smartphones


2. They Improve Audio Quality

Coltan also makes surface acoustic wave (SAW) filters for mobile phones and other sound-emitting electronic devices, which is important for improved audio quality. It won’t make it to the standard of an audiophile, but it’s a stepping stone.

Also read: Best Cheap Headphones for Audiophiles


3. They Make Your Screen Look Vivid

Graphics is an important factor in buying a phone — apparently, columbite-tantalite also plays a part in this. Coltan is an ingredient in making lenses with high refractive indices such as LCD and mobile phone screens.


Which Country Is the Largest Producer of Coltan?

Coltan Ore
Photo by University of Waterloo

Australia was initially the largest producer of columbite-tantalite in the world, closely followed by Canada and Brazil. In 2006 alone, the three countries had an 80% share of total columbite-tantalite produce. However, their production of coltan went downhill following environmental regulations and unsuccessful mining company buyouts.

Coltan mining has also found its way to some parts of South America like Colombia and Venezuela. Both countries, however, had a difficult time cleaning up coltan mining because of the interference of smugglers and cartels.

Nowadays, the majority of the coltan supplies come from Africa, specifically in Congo and Rwanda. With coltan mining being a viable option to earn more than what most Rwandan and Congolese households do, this trend is expected to continue. But as the demand for the mineral grew, global organizations have unearthed serious problems in the coltan industry in the said countries.


The Conflict in Coltan

Among the pressing issues that are partly brought about by columbite-tantalite mining are exploitation, environmental degradation, and even civil wars. There are other factors that contribute to lawlessness in Congo and Rwanda, but the unregulated coltan industry has, in a way, enabled rebel groups. Since the trade of coltan and tantalum is not strictly regulated in these countries, companies in need of the mineral are free to buy from anyone, may it be from legitimate state actors or informal sectors. The high value of coltan became a source of revenue for unlawful forces.

Shifting the focus to its environmental effects, coltan mining has also adversely affected the rainforests in Congo. Its effect on the natural habitat of gorillas and their near extinction has been magnified over the news. However, it displaces not only the rich fauna of central sub-Saharan Africa but also the Mbuti pygmies living there. Because of the lack of regulation in the industry, the indigenous Mbuti group is at the breach of losing the way of living they lived for thousand years.

These and other controversies surrounding coltan mining is the reason why it is considered a conflict mineral.


Actions Are Slowly Taken

There is no viable alternative to coltan in terms of its use for mobile phones and other electronics. That is why strict stewardship of its trade might be the only way to curb its adverse effect on nature and on the people. The U.S. Congress has long made its move to prohibit all US-based industrial and manufacturing companies to source out their coltan supplies from Congo and its neighbors. The problem is that it’s not only the U.S. the demand for it is coming from. Without other countries following suit, the conflict in coltan mining in the African region will continue.

Coltan is almost invisible when we buy our smartphones. While it can do wonders for our mobile companion, it’s a grim reality that it harms lives in many ways you don’t know.