Tantalum, your smart phone and the world economy

I listen to BBC World Service a lot. Today I caught the program “More or Less” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qshd), presented by Tim Harford.

“More or Less” is about “the numbers and statistics used in political debate, the news and everyday life”. 

Today’s first part of the program discussed important numbers of 2013. The first guest was Dr. Pippa Malmgren, a highly respected American policy maker and recognized Global leader (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pippa_Malmgren).

Dr. Malmgren’s favourite number for 2013 was 73, the periodic table number for the element Tantalum, “one of the rare earths” and these elements are very important, because they are essential components of mobile phones and computers and thus critical for the modern economy. Dr. Malmgren went on to explain that critical minerals are minerals with a limited supply. The issue with being able to produce them is whether there is enough investment to “pull these minerals out of the ground”. She explained that it takes about 15 years before a Tantalum or a Phosphate mine (she mentioned phosphate because it is a fertilizer) sees a return on capital and this is generally way too long for investors, so it’s difficult to raise the money to develop such projects. She then jumped from critical minerals to the shortage of talent “to dig these things out of the ground”. As a result of this global talent shortage, new graduates from the Colorado School of Mines, “America’s best engineering school”, are expected to make higher starting salaries than those of the Harvard business school for the first time ever this coming year. This, she thought, was important, because it might motivate “those with a talent for math” towards engineering degrees (essential for the “real economy”) instead of towards finance and business degrees where everybody was drawn to in the past “because that’s where you made the most money”.

Well, that’s a lot! Let’s peel the onion on this one.

About Tantalum

First of all, Tantalum is not a a rare earth element. The rare earths are the Lanthanoids (nos. 57 through 70) plus Scandium (21) an Yttrium (39). Rare earth elements aren’t rare, by the way, they are plentiful in the earth’s crust, but they tend to occur very diluted in deposits together with lots of other elements. While Tantalum is not a Rare Earth element, it does also occur very diluted: its crustal abundance is 0.7 g/ton  (http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/niobium/myb1-2011-niobi.pdf). So you truly have to dig large volumes of rock to get a reasonable amount of one particular element. And if there is no or limited use for the other elements in the deposit, then you end up with a lot of useless waste. Hence there is a lot of R&D going on that focuses on finding uses for some of the other elements in such deposits. A Tantalum-Niobium International Study Centre with nearly 100 organizational members exists since 1974 with headquarters in Belgium (http://tanb.org).

According to the United States Geological Survey’s commodity database “Tantalum is ductile, easily fabricated, highly resistant to corrosion by acids, and a good conductor of heat and electricity and has a high melting point”.  (http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/niobium/). Easy to see that it’s useful for fine manufactured products such as mobile phones, computers and automobile electronics. Tantalum is not the only unusual element in your smart phone, there is a host of others, but I’m not getting into those in this post.

Tantalum is typically found in pegmatite veins. Pegmatite veins look spectacular in outcrop, because they tend to have very large crystals, due to the fact that they originate by dewatering of metamorphic rocks (these are rocks that are altered from their original state due to being exposed by very high temperatures and/or pressures) or by hot alteration of certain magmas (magmas are rocks that result as the lithification of original crustal melts). The picture shows an example of such a pegmatite vein: the man is putting his hand on a single crystal of K-feldspar (a very common mineral) at the Ruggles pegmatite mine near Grafton (NH, USA). http://www.newark.osu.edu/facultystaff/personal/jstjohn/Documents/Rocks-and-Fossils-in-the-Field/Ruggles-Pegmatite.htm

Finding such veins in the subsurface requires the skills of specialized geologists. And that is where Dr. Malmgren erred: because no matter how good the engineers that graduate from the Colorado School of Mines (an excellent school indeed), engineers don’t “find stuff” – geologists do. The School of Mines produces geologists as well, as do hundreds or other schools in the US and another three dozen or so in Canada.

Tantalum hasn’t been produced in the US since more than 50 years, so it imports it mostly from Australia, Brazil, and Canada, but a lot of the Tantalum that the US imports is actually produced from recycled foreign and domestic scrap (http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/niobium/mcs-2013-tanta.pdf).

Tantalum mining in Canada

I have found three Tantalum prospects/mines in Canada:

1. Tanco Mine near Bernice Lake (Manitoba). This is an old mine (the deposit was discovered in the 1920s) and it’s nearing depletion, the quality of the resource is decreasing. Early last year, 40% of its workforce was laid off (http://www.winnipegsun.com/2013/03/13/tanco-mine-near-lac-du-bonnet-laying-off-40-of-staff).

2. War Eagle mine in Northwest Territories (http://www.wareaglemining.com/s/MACTantalum.asp). Here is an excellent photo of typical pegmatite veins at the War Eagle deposit (http://www.wareaglemining.com/s/Image.asp?i=photos/mac/6meterClimbingWall.jpg&id=78627.)

Click on a percentage in the above legend to enlarge or reduce this picture

3. The Lilipad Lakes mine of Avalon Rare Metals in Northern Ontario (http://avalonraremetals.com/projects/lilypad_lakes/) another pegmatite. Here is an excellent illustration of the size and concentration of the resource:

http://avalonraremetals.com/_resources/projects/lilypad3.jpg

Tantalum mining in/and the rest of the world

Unfortunately, about 50% of the world’s Tantalum is mined artisanally in countries with troublesome human rights records, notably the Democratic Republic of Congo. The excellent website http://www.mining.com contains a superb video by a German non-profit (Edeos) on “the real price of a smart phone”: http://www.mining.com/video-from-production-to-disposal-whats-the-life-of-a-smart-phone-actually-like-38873/. Full disclosure: yes, I have a smart phone, and a tablet and a pc. I know.

Dr. Malmgren gave the impression that finding and producing these resources is simply a matter of making sure that there are enough talented engineers (and geoscientists) to find the stuff and enough investors to pay for pulling it out of the ground. I’m sure that this impression on my part is caused by the fact that her contribution was only a few minutes of radio time. Because I’m equally sure that a woman of her stature realizes that future critical resources aren’t simply produced by more people and more money.

Personally, I believe that no matter the talent and no matter the money, there will be increasing conflict and dragging of heels over earth resources in the near and more distant future: indigenous peoples are increasingly standing up for their human rights, their land rights and their labour rights. All people are standing up for environmental protection. Countries and corporations won’t be able to just bulldoze (literally) over people because of profits. The mining industry knows this and works hard at improving its practices. The Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada has the E3 Plus program (http://www.pdac.ca/programs/e3-plus), to help exploration companies improve social, environmental and health&safety practices. But the dialogue and protests over the Keystone and Northern Gateway pipelines, over hydraulic fracturing of shale gas, over blood diamonds and blood Tantalon are, I believe, only the first steps in forging completely new ways of managing our earth’s resources.

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I am an earth scientist. Understanding earth is essential for the well-being of our global society. Earth is fascinating, science is fascinating and a better understanding of both can help society forward. This blog attempts to make a contribution to raising awareness of these issues.
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One Response to Tantalum, your smart phone and the world economy

  1. Bill Mercer says:

    Good summary on Ta, a very important element in our electronic world. An interesting thing to note about tantalum resources is that the largest resources of contained Ta and Nb tend to be associated with peralkaline intrusive complexes such as nepheline syenite and carbonatite because the tonnage tends to be high although the grade tends to be low. So an example in Canada in terms of high contained Ta is the Nechalacho deposit of Avalon, in the NWT, hosted in a nepheline-sodalite syenite and the largest in the world is perhaps Ghurruyah in Saudi Arabia. The challenge for the peralkaline rocks is grade and metallurgical recovery.

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