What is Coltan?

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The name Coltan is derived from columbite–tantalite, known industrially as tantalite, with tantalum (Ta) as the principle chemical element. Tantalum (coltan) is currently classified as a conflict mineral along with tin (cassiterite), tungsten (wolramite) and gold. Previously known as tantalium, its name comes from Tantalus, a hero from Greek mythology.  In the story, Tantalus had been punished after death by being condemned to stand knee-deep in water with perfect fruit growing above his head, both of which eternally tantalized him. (If he bent to drink the water, it drained below the level he could reach, and if he reached for the fruit, the branches moved out of his grasp.)

Tantalum is a rare, hard, blue-gray, lustrous transition metal that is highly corrosion-resistant. Tantalum is also produced as a by-product of tin and tungsten mining and smelting as deposits of these metals are often found together. Tantalum is also found together with the chemically similar niobium. Tantalum is a rare metal, fifteen times less abundant in the universe than gold.

Tantalum is part of the refractory metals group, which are widely used as minor components in alloys. The chemical inertness of tantalum makes it a valuable substance for laboratory equipment and a substitute for platinum. Tantalum is also used for medical implants and bone repair as it is biocompatible. Its main use today is in tantalum capacitors in electronic equipment such as mobile phones, DVD players, video game systems and computers. It is also used in high temperature alloys for air and land based turbines.