How A US Firm Hopes To Keep Tantalum In Africa A Little Longer Before It Ends Up In Your Cell Phone

By Dana Sanchez Published: January 7, 2017, 12:02 am
tantalum in AfricaTantalum has other uses besides mobile phones. This tantalum marker is used for proton beam radiotherapy in eye surgery. Photo: retinalmd.com

If you own a mobile phone, chances are it has tantalum in it from Africa and you have small amounts of the rare metal within inches of your brain.

Most of the world’s tantalum is from Africa, and most of that is from Democratic Republic of the Congo.

DRC is often associated with conflict — conflict diamonds, armed conflict and conflict tantalum — an association that has led many people to link all tantalum from Africa with conflict in the DRC, Investing News reported.

But tantalum-bearing ores can be found throughout the continent’s Great Lakes region and elsewhere in Africa.

A rare, hard, blue-gray, lustrous transition metal, tantalum is highly resistant to corrosion. It is part of the refractory metals group used as components in alloys. Tantalum’s chemical inertness makes it a valuable substitute for platinum. Its main use today is in capacitors in electronic equipment such as mobile phones, computers, DVD players and video game systems.

Besides DRC, tantalum can be found in other African countries — sometimes “re-exported,” according to Investing News — including Rwanda, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Egypt, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Gabon.

Most of these countries export tantalum ore concentrate without adding value to it — mainly to China and Europe, according to Frank Balestra.

Balestra is founder and CEO of AB Minerals Corp., a mining and metals company that claims to have invented a new disruptive tantalite processing technology. U.S.-based AB Minerals is located in Little Rock, Arkansas, according to LinkedIn.

AB Minerals has developed a new separation technology to process tantalite-bearing minerals into metallurgical grade tantalum powder and niobium hydroxide using an industrial scale processing plant.

The company hopes to sell this technology all over Africa.

By implementing in-country value-added processing, local communities, miners and the country can all receive significant benefits, Balestra said on his LinkedIn page.

AB Minerals is building Africa’s first industrial-scale columbite-tantalite separation plant in Rwanda. It is expected to be operational in mid-2017, bringing industrialization opportunities to the region where the mineral is produced, CNBC Africa reported in August.

Wedaeli Chibelushi interviewed Balestra for African Business Review. Here’s part of that interview:

Unfortunately, most of Africa’s tantalum is processed abroad in countries such as China and Europe, meaning the African countries producing the minerals reap only a tiny reward. AB Minerals plans to bring tantalum’s value back to the countries that host the ore reserves. The firm has developed a new technology to create metallurgical grade tantalum powder and niobium hydroxide from industrial scale processing plants.

How did this project come to be?

My first trip to Africa was to DRC. I ended up taking a trip to Kinshasa and spent some time trying to put a project together. It did not go well. I was subsequently invited to look at Rwanda. That is where I started to learn the coltan business. In Canada, there has been a lot of work in metallurgy with complex rare earth minerals. I had a couple of labs do some work along a different path than the existing processes of today. We had some early success and achieved complete separation of tantalum-niobium from the concentrate. We then needed to expand on this success to get to a commercial scale using parameters that would work in African countries given certain limitations. Over the last several years we’ve been developing the commercial process and now get nearly 100 percent recovery of tantalum and niobium from our concentrate. We have developed a very nice process that is a low-cost, low power solution that will work exceptionally well in any African country with enough tantalite-bearing ores to operate a plant.

Talk about the challenges that arose and how you overcame them?

There are issues like power limitations, brownouts, and electrical storms that happen often. For many processing plants, if the power goes off for some reason and you cannot maintain your furnace temperature, you would lose the load you are processing. Our process, being a low power solution, will work on either electricity or diesel. Inconsistent power does not stop us from operating. After looking at the opportunity, I realized “There has to be a better way to do this. This technology hasn’t changed in 60-70 years”. It is seldom that you can find an industry that the technology has not been considerably upgraded in that time period.

The process today uses hydrofluoric acid, a very dangerous chemical. The process is very power intensive and the capital cost to build a plant is significant. We use a completely different process, one that doesn’t use hydrofluoric acid. A process that is more environmentally friendly as we capture everything, waste, gases, etc., so it’s a very clean system. These were extremely important aspects of how we wanted the process designed.

How does this translate on a global scale?

Most of the world’s supply of tantalum originates from Africa. With so many African countries that have tantalum mineralization and no processing facilities on the continent, AB Minerals has a significant opportunity to implement plants in each of those countries.

We were on a call yesterday when the person said, “People don’t understand that tantalum is one of the world’s most important minerals.” The world is going to the Internet of Everything, which is interacting cars to houses, everything to everything, and they’re all using capacitors. Without tantalum, these capacitors don’t work. Industry has tried different materials, and they just don’t do what tantalum does, it’s an irreplaceable metal. The value of tantalum remains relatively strong, and it’s going to keep going. The majority of easily attainable tantalum that remains on this earth is in Africa.

Read more at African Business Review.

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