Coltan Mining: All about the mineral that gives life to Smartphones

Coltan Mines Life Smartphones
Coltan Mines Life Smartphones

It’s all about the trendy stuff, but do you really know what coltan is? Find out what are the current uses of this mineral, its future applications and the largest coltan mines in Spain and the world.

In recent years, coltan mines have gone from being forgotten deposits to being one of the most important due to the applications that this material has in the manufacture of technological devices. Today we teach you everything you want to know about coltan mines, the material and its applications.

What is coltan?

It is a mineral present in many countries in the southern hemisphere that is in turn composed of two different minerals: columbite (COL), made up of niobium oxide, iron and magnesium, and tantalite (TAN), tantalum oxide, iron and magnesium. The combination of these two minerals also gave rise to its name.

Columbite and tantalite are found in undefined proportions within coltan, being much more precious coltan minerals that have a high percentage of tantalite, since it is this one that has all the technological applications of the mineral.

Tantalite is usually found constituting between 20% and 40% of the total mineral, while its most demanded compound within this, tantalum, is present between 10% and 60% of the total tantalite, for so the presence of this material is quite reduced in most cases.

What is coltan used for?

The boom in portable technology in the world led to new research on elements that had never been used in technology before. An example of this is the use of coltan. Extractions from coltan mines began in the 1990s but reached their peak at the beginning of the 21st century. This increase in the extraction of a material that had always been present is due to the applications that coltan and especially its component, tantalite, have in technology.

The use of tantalite in the manufacture of technological devices has caused a clear decrease in its size, which has led to the arrival of smartphones.

Some of the uses of coltan in current technology are:

  • Production of capacitors used for the storage of electrical energy, or what is the same, the reduction in the size of the batteries of the vast majority of electronic devices. Tantalum is responsible for storing a large amount of electronic charge in much less space than other materials.
  • In alloy with other substances, it is used in aircraft turbines and nuclear reactors since coltan has a high resistance to corrosion and alteration by any material.
  • Manufacture of lenses for all types of cameras, both photography and video. This material intervenes in making them thinner while preserving all the power of their objectives.
  • As it is a superconducting material, it conducts electricity 80% better than copper, it is also used in the development of instruments that require good conductivity, such as magnetic trains.
  • In the future it is called to establish space bases on other planets.

Coltan mines

In a study carried out in 2008, it was extracted that more than 70% of the coltan that had been used in recent years came from recently extracted material, which makes us clearly see the coltan fever that we are experiencing.

Many scientists point out that the largest reserve of coltan in the world is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, approximately 80% of the world’s total of this material would be there, however there is no consensus and there is no real figure regarding the amount of this material available to the Congo. What is clear is that, although coltan is more abundant in African countries, Australia is the top producer followed by Brazil. These figures may undergo a significant change in the future as China also has its own mines and is making great strides in their extraction, it should not be forgotten that the vast majority of electronic products are produced today in this country.

Coltan mines in Spain

Our country is not one of the great producers of this mineral, far from it, but we also have some mines distributed throughout the territory.

The two most important regarding extension are located in two small towns, one in the province of Ourense and the other in Cuidad Real. The latter, discovered in 2005, is still under inspection but it is not clear that coltan will be extracted from its soil in the near future.

The mine located in Ourense was open due to the extractions of tin that were carried out during the 70s and 80s, before the company in charge of this work went bankrupt and Canadian miners arrived who have been the ones who have discovered this mineral in our territory and those who plan to export it to other countries.

How is coltan extracted?

The coltan extraction process consists of the excavation of large holes in rows from which the material is removed from the subsoil. The water and the mud that is formed is obtained and they are poured into huge tubes where they are washed, making the metal (coltan) stay at the bottom of the tube, since its weight causes it to fall to the bottom by itself. only.

Future of coltan

Technology would not be understood today without coltan. In a world in which all electronic devices are getting lighter and thinner, coltan opened the doors to a reduction of between 10 and 20 times the size and weight that devices reached a couple of decades ago. But we must not forget that this mineral is non-renewable and therefore its disappearance is closer with each passing day and it is the task of scientists to continue studying new materials and ways of conducting and storing electronic charges to have a firm substitute when that day arrives. Therefore, it seems that the only solution not to exhaust the coltan is that we take advantage of our electronic devices, reusing them and thus use the electronic components that we no longer use.