Tantalum mining transformed

Materials World magazine
1 Apr 2016

Fifteen years ago, many activist groups were claiming that tantalum mining was a major cause of the wars in the Africa’s Great Lakes region. Now the region is accepted as a secure supplier of tantalum concentrates. Richard Burt looks at what’s changed.

Tantalum is very different to most major extracted minerals, such as copper. The industry is tiny – its total annual mine output is generally less than 2,000 tonnes of contained tantalum pentoxide (Ta2O5) and valued at around US$300 million, less than 1% of the value of global copper output.

Nearly all copper is produced by several score large industrial mines, almost exclusively using froth flotation, and often supplying captive smelters. Even at its most vibrant, there are relatively few industrial tantalum mines, including those in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Ethiopia, and Mozambique, and all rely on gravity concentration to win their product, which is sold to a handful of independent smelters. Gravity concentration is an ideal process for artisanal mining, and a significant amount of material is won by such means in Central Africa, often in association with tin. The rough product passes, generally in bags of 50kg or less, through several hands, including secondary cleaning plants separating the tantalum and tin minerals, prior to it reaching the smelters. In addition to these primary sources, some tin smelters produce a slag with economic quantities of tantalum.

While copper is traded at prices transparently determined on the London Metal Exchange, tantalum is not. Prices are set – either on long-term contracts, or parcel by parcel – between miner or trader and smelter on a confidential basis. Any data that is published is simply a best estimate.

Finally, copper, like most major metals, is ubiquitous in everyday life, with no obvious major end user. While tantalum metals and compounds are used in a large number of other industries – such as medical, automotive and aeronautical – electronics has always been the highest profile use.

The conflict mineral

Between 1997–2003, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was embroiled in a violent civil war involving several surrounding countries. The war sporadically continued for another decade. Activist groups, in their efforts to shine a light on the conflict to a largely disinterested public outside of the region, needed a focus. Tantalum, with its artisanal mining sector, a convoluted supply chain, market confidentiality and, importantly, a high profile end user industry became the cause célèbre, with ‘Blood on your Mobile’ one of many campaigns. 

The causes of the war were far more complex than the pursuit of the region’s mineral wealth. Tantalum concentrates (colloquially known as ‘coltan’) were actually a minor contributor to rebel funding – it accounted for just 5% of mineral revenues, with gold by far the largest (mineral) financial contributor. The region, in fact, contains around 10% of world resources, not the 80% often claimed, and the amount of tantalum in a mobile phone was insignificant compared with gold, or the other ‘conflict minerals’, tin and tungsten. However, the campaigns successfully highlighted the problems around the supply chains of many minerals extracted in the DRC.

Securing the new ground

The result was that, by the end of 2002, much of the tantalum industry had disengaged from Central Africa. However, a 2008 report by the United Nations Group of Experts challenged industry to act in a more determined manner. 

For the upstream (mine to smelter) side of the supply chain, ensuring access to market was paramount. In 2009, the tin industry, by then the most exposed of the ‘3T’ minerals (tantalum, tin and tungsten), introduced a due diligence programme known as the ITRI Tin Supply Chain Initiative (iTSCi). The tantalum industry became partners in early 2010. It was activated fully in Rwanda in early 2011, followed by Katanga Province, Maniema and both North and South Kivu Provinces in the DRC, and, more recently, in Burundi.

iTSCi is a full due diligence programme that uses the OECD Due Diligence Guidelines as its base document. All bags of concentrate are tagged and recorded, with the tag following the material through the various stages of the supply chain. The programme also has the two other facets that make it OECD compliant. One is regular, independent auditing of the programme, of countries, and of minesites. The other is risk management, which incorporates minesite baseline assessments as well as incident reporting and mitigation. All data is collected by government employees, with oversight from the programme’s in-region partners, including the NGO PACT inc. 

iTSCi is not without its difficulties. For example, the very wealth of data has stressed the system, causing delays in reporting – there are more than half a million data points generated per year, many of these using ‘pen and paper’ rather than an electronic system. However, to date, no comparable programme has been successfully deployed and iTSCi is the accepted due diligence programme. While not advocating a monopoly, having just one programme in an area minimises any confusion and the potential for things to slip through the cracks, especially in a region where infrastructure and training remains fragile.

Two downstream-led projects for tantalum are in place, both incorporating iTSCi. These are the AVX/Motorola Solutions-led ‘Solutions for Hope’ and the KEMET led ‘Partnership for Social and Economic Sustainability’ programmes. Both are ‘closed pipe’, but slightly different in the detail. The ‘closed pipe’ approach may indeed be the way of the future, at least for the larger producing artisanal mines or cooperatives, in that it simplifies the otherwise complex supply chain, improving transparency and allowing more of the purchase price to flow to the miners. Both projects include local infrastructure development, including schools and health centres – a must for any developing operation in the region, as this creates a more socially responsible and sustainable situation. 

For the downstream side (smelter to end-user), the priority was different – their need was to ensure their feedstock was ‘conflict free’. The electronics and telecommunications industries, through the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition and Global e-Sustainability Initiative (EICC/GeSI) developed the Conflict-Free Smelter Initiative (CFSI), which requires processors to provide credible evidence of their conflict-free sourcing. The processors are subject to an annual independent validation audit using a specifically designed protocol. It is a vigorous, in-depth, and demanding regime involving open-book access in which follow-the-money assessments and physical stock checks provide a mass-balance of minerals and documentation to demonstrate a fully traceable chain of custody from mine to smelter. 

EICC/GeSI also developed a ‘Reporting Template’ to assist end users to trace the links back to the smelter. It did not take long for Ford Motor Company, followed by others in the automotive and aeronautical industries, to appreciate the efficacy of this programme and become partners in it. The tantalum industry, with significant support from within the TIC leadership, quickly embraced CFSI, accepting it as the new way of doing business, and most smelters are now deemed CFS compliant.

Governments get in on the act

Government and inter-governmental agencies also took action. The OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas and its supplement for the ‘3T’ minerals (cassiterite, columbotantalite and wolframite) was published early 2011.The International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) has developed its own Regional Certification Mechanism, which incorporates the OECD guidelines. It also requires mines to be certified ‘conflict-free’ and, as of the summer 2015, the number of mines so certified exceeds 140.

The Dodd-Frank Act (or more correctly, the U.S. Financial Stability Act) was promulgated in 2010 and section 1502, relating to conflict minerals, came into force in 2012. This is very different to the laws previously mentioned. It is law for all companies that are subject to reporting rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and is not just a guideline. Furthermore, it targets just four metals (tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold), and specific countries – the DRC and its nine adjoining countries. The EU is close to finalising its own regulations and, while these will target the same four metals, they will apply to conflict regions worldwide. 

These regulations do not ban the purchase of conflict minerals from their target regions, just requiring that they have to be declared, and there has to be the appropriate due diligence – following the OECD guidelines. It is ironic that the challenges to Dodd-Frank are coming from US manufacturers, whom it was supposed to protect, while those that it truly impacted most – the miners and their families in Central Africa – have gone from seeing Dodd-Frank as another colonial imposition drafted without consultation with the governments in the region to fully accepting the challenges that it brought, realising that it has, along with the in-region iTSCi programme, had a remarkably positive impact. 

Industry and government agencies have certainly put a myriad of measures in place, but in the end it is the consumer, or more accurately the consumer conscience, that determines the overall efficacy of these measures. One obvious measure of their impact is the amount of ethically sourced material reaching the marketplace.

Even at the height of the 2000 dot-com bubble, tantalum exports from Central Africa were less than 500 tonnes of contained Ta2O5. Once the bubble burst, and industrial mines had taken up the slack, output was rarely above 200 tonnes. Since the passing of the Dodd-Frank Act, and since the roll-out of iTSCi, exports have dramatically increased, with close to 1,000 tonnes of contained Ta2O5 (of which more than half was from Rwanda) passing through the iTSCi and CFSI programmes in 2014, while low prices have forced some higher cost industrial scale mines to close. This latter is changing, with several new mines close to coming on stream. 

The measures put in place by governments and industry, with the enthusiastic support of many civil societies, has effectively broken the link between mining and the funding of rebel groups, at least in the ‘3Ts’ sector. Furthermore, the programmes introduced have demonstrated that socially responsible production of tantalum ores in the Great Lakes region is possible and practical, assuring end users that they are using ethically sourced tantalum. 

For anyone left in doubt, a quote from PACT’s Regional Director Yves Bawa says it all, ‘As a Congolese citizen, I am incredibly proud of what is being achieved in my country and in those of our neighbours to build a responsible minerals sector in the region. As a development professional, I continue to be amazed at the rate at which we have achieved broad, impressive results in such a short time.’ 

This article is based upon an article published by the TIC called Much Ado about Tantalum. Again. A full copy can be accessed at www.tanb.org 

Richard Burt has worked in the tantalum industry since 1977. He set up his own consultancy in 2002, working with an international client list. He was an overseas member of the council of the Institute of Mining and Metallurgy from 1998–2003 and President of the Tantalum-Niobium International Study Centre from 2009–11. Since 2009, he has been heavily involved in the Central African conflict minerals issue.