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Tantalisina Tantalum.

Africa's miracle metal

Tom Nevin reports on why new uses for one of the most abundant metals to be found in Africa could transform whole economies and even put gold and diamonds to shame.

A substance, found abundantly in Africa and slugged the 'miracle metal', is causing extraordinary excitement in the high-tech arena. Its value has increased many hundreds of times over the last three years and the best new deposits are being found in Africa's poorest countries.

The name of this wonder metal is tantalum. A stampede for mining rights for deposits in east and southern Africa is making the gold rushes of California and South Africa seem like a stroll in the park.

The mineral has properties vital to new-age high-technology and is in such demand that its price could threaten gold, diamonds, platinum and uranium. Late last month, tantalum was trading at around $450/lb.

That's about 600 times higher than it's price just three years ago. It's likely that as high-tech products such as computers and cell-phones continue to improve and increase in usage, the demand for the heavy grey metal will grow collaterally and prices will continue to soar.

The cellular telephone is just one reason for tantalum's increasing popularity. It wasn't all that long ago when carrying a cell-phone around was like having a brick in your pocket or handbag. Tantalum has changed that. Today the mobile phone is handy, light and used by more than 700m people worldwide. Tantalum powder is compacted for use in producing passive capacitators and is the key to reducing the size of the cell-phone. Capacitators are responsible for regulating voltage at high temperatures. They supply the extra kick of energy for the phone that the battery can't provide on its own.

Boon to Africa

Tantalite (the series of tantalum most sought after) will be a boon to its host countries; Those countries where the mineral abounds include Nigeria, Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia.

Companies still hoping for a share in the bonanza will probably be disappointed as most known deposits have already been snapped up and ring-fenced by mining operations both big and small, as well as high-tech manufacturing corporations whose products depend on a stable supply of the metal. Sony and Samsung, two of the largest electronic companies in the world, are waiting to invest directly in new tantalite mining operation in Zimbabwe.

Southern Africa's latest tantalum mine started operations in March and will generate an income of around $7m in its first year. The strike is 15km north of Namibia's Orange River border with South Africa at Karas and consists of substantial quantities in tantalite pegmatites. Tantalite Valley Mine MD, Sabine Severin, says initial plans are to produce 20 tons a year of contained tantalum peroxide - "although we have plans to double this in due course.

Australia's Western Mining Corporation recently formed a partnership with a South African operation and successfully bid for a 2,000 sq km concession in Burundi. The company has also taken an option to buy a controlling share in a zinc mining operation in Zambia.

"We've already begun our tantalum mining activity in Burundi, as well as the feasibility on the Zambian zinc mine," reports Western Mining CEO Don O'Sullivan from Perth, Australia.

"Our tantalum concession in Burundi is extensive, and by far the biggest in the country. Once we're fully on stream, the mine will become a major contributor to Burundi's foreign income."

Western Mining is scouring the east and central African region for more mining opportunities and will make the company public once the tantalite and zinc operations are fully under way.

"We intend listing first on the Melbourne, Australia, and Montreal, Canada, stock exchanges as the start of our activity in international capital markets," says O'Sullivan. "We may also need to capitalise our acquisition of new mines and raise operational funding. It's all very exciting and we're off to a great start."

The 21st century is creating uses for rare metals that, although their remarkable qualities have long been suspected, did not come into their own until the dawning of the digital age. Now metals in the series, such as tantalite, niobium and columbium, are in great demand because of their super-conductivity, anti-corrosion, high melting point and chemical contribution to lightweight steel.

Cutting edge of materials technology

Tantalum especially is at the cutting edge of materials technology and is increasingly finding application in new electronic components, including camcorders, mobile telephones, razor blades and lightweight materials for motor vehicles. Its high melting point and corrosion resistance add to the reliability and long life of electronic components which have used aluminium, nickel and other base metals in the past.

Notes Britain's Mining Finance magazine: "Tantalum is also used in super alloys for the aerospace industry, in speciality chemicals for that industry and in metal carbide for metal-working tools. It is used in glass to increase refraction and in surgical steel as it is non-reactive to body-tissue. It is found in space vehicles and missiles and is a highly-strategic metal of the future.

"As these types of technologies become commonplace, so will the use of tantalum and its sister metals. A tantalum carbide graphite composite developed in the United States is thought to be one of the hardest metals ever made."

The demand for tantalum is currently in a steeply upward spiral, mainly because of the rapid proliferation of mobile telephones that use tantalum capacitators, and because production is being outstripped by demand. World output is currently at around 3m pounds a year (1.36mkg). The consumption of tantalum capacitators has leapt from 15bn units in 1997 to 25bn units a year.

"Electronics manufacturers are worried that this viral element will become even rarer and want an even spread of producers across the world in different regions for strategic reasons," Mining Finance quotes an analyst as saying. "At the moment too much supply comes from Australia and the industry needs to diversify."

The world's leading tantalum producer is Australia's Sons of Gwalia, controlling about half of the globe's production. Rapid exploitation of reserves in Africa could ease such single-source reliance, stabilise prices and ensure the mineral's long economic life. Ironically, the fact that its price is being driven so high could threaten its future.

"Like many exotic minerals," says Mining Finance, "very little is needed in each unit, but the number of these units run into billions. Already tantalum is used all around us in very small quantities, a metal of the new millennium and the technological age. But if a shortage caused by a lack of new mining projects drives up prices, then electronics manufacturers will start to substitute other more price stable elements in their products and the metal will lose its market share forever. Its strength is that it is not limited to one use but to many hundreds, not discounting the uses to be found in the future in technologies not yet discovered."

New life for tin mines

Tantalum occurs naturally with tin and once-worked out tin mines in Namibia and Uganda are getting a new and lucrative lease of life as companies reprocess the slag dumps to extract the rare mineral. A Swedish company is reopening a tin mine at Uis in the hostile Damara drylands, and reworking the tailings for their rich harvest of tantalum. In western Uganda old tin and beryl mines in the Inyanga concession are being reworked. Tantalite stringers, some two inches thick are being hand-mined from the waste dumps. A typical ore will sell for up to US$35,000 a ton.

Concession owner, Uganda Gold Mining, is capitalising on the fact that the mine could be started quickly and easily with a small amount of start-up funding. High grade workings in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been closed down because of the war, and investment in tantalum mining in Zimbabwe is marking time until the political and economic situation has stabilised.

Tradable commodity

Some of Africa's richest tantalum deposits, occurring as 'col-tan', short for columbite-tantalum, are situated in the eastern reaches of the Democratic Republic of Congo and are said to be financing some of the military factions engaged in the two and a half year civil war. It seems that after diamonds, gold and oil 'col-tan' has become another trading commodity to buy arms and other war equipment.

Researcher Alex Duval Smith of The Star Foreign Service writes that "the Kabila camp's allies - Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia - have been granted offshore oil concessions, as well as diamond mines, cobalt and rare timber. The rebels' supporters - Rwanda and Uganda - also want payment, typically in diamonds, timber, coffee, gold- and now tantalum.

TANTALUM AND ITS USES

Tantalum was first discovered as columbium in 1801 by Charles Harchert in Connecticut, USA, and later shown to be two elements - tantalum and niobium. Tantalum oxide was isolated by Anders Ekeberg in Sweden a year later. He named it tantalum in frustration because of the trouble it cause him as he tried to isolate it and the way it tantalised his efforts to purify it.

It is the third member of the acid earth family and has a reactivity lower than that of platinum. Tantalite is the most widespread tantalum mineral and forms a series with the mineral columbite. Tantalum and niobium are very similar and occupy a series. Tantalite is the more tantalum rich end member of the series.

Tantalum is a shiny, grey, but ductile metal resembling platinum.

In fact, tantalum is often used as an economical substitute in applications normally requiring platinum metal. Tantalum is not readily attacked by chemicals and forms an oxide film on its surface.

Commercial application of tantalum includes:

1) As tantalum carbide, TaC, (one of the hardest man-made substances) for the cutting edges of high-speed machine tools.

2) As tantalum oxide as the primary ingredient in electronic capacitators and rectifiers.

3) The use of tantalum and its alloys in making surgical and dental tools. Alloys of tantalum, like the metal itself, are resistant to corrosion and wear. It's also used in turbine blades.

4) Its use in surgical repairs of human bones (i.e. in skull plates), as foil or wires to connect torn nerves, and as woven gauze to bind up abdominal muscles.
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Author:Nevin, Tom
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:May 1, 2001
Words:1714
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