I was really rather surprised to see this story making the front page of Bloomberg:
South Korea, the world’s biggest maker of consumer-electronics memory chips, is leading the first geological study of Colombia’s rare metals as it seeks to secure supplies for Samsung Electronics Co. (005930) and LG Corp. (003550)
State-run Korean Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources is exploring for coltan, the ore that contains tantalum, in the Amazon rain forest of Colombia’s Vichada and Guainia departments, project geologist Jin Kwang Min said.
The reason for my surprise?
The study started last year under the auspices of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Lee Myung Bak, South Korea’s leader at the time. It covers 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) and has an initial cost of $50,000, Alexandra Orjuela, a spokeswoman for Santos’ office, said in e-mailed comments March 5. President Park Geun Hye succeeded Lee in February.
In this sort of exploration $50k buys you two men in a boat for a month or two. It’s simply an entirely trivial amount: which is why I thought it odd that Bloomberg reported on it.
There is undoubtedly “coltan” (should be “columbo tantalite” really) there for:
Colombia has no official coltan deposits and so far production has come mainly from sifting Amazon tributaries. Sales doubled from a year earlier to $20.4 million in 2012, according the national statistics office. Brazil is South America’s largest producer.
If you’ve got alluvial deposits in the mud at the bottom of the river (they’ll be on bends and curves where the differential speed of the water separates heavier and lighter fractions of the sand/mud) then there must indeed be hard rock deposits upstream that they have been weathered out of. And $20 million’s actually a respectable sum in the tantalum market. it’s getting into single digit percentages of the entire global market for the material. That motherlode that produces those alluvial deposits could be substantial.
It could, of course, also work the other way. Various granites can contain tantalum: but you’d never bother to go hard rock mining for it. There’s just not enough Ta there to make grinding up the rock worthwhile. But if the weather’s already done this for you then……which might be why they’ve only spend $50k so far.
Fun fact: if you wanted to replace Congo’s supplies of “coltan” you could do it quite easily from the mud and slurry left over from the Cornish China Clay industry. Unfortunately it would cost many multiples of the DRC material which is why we do indeed use said DRC material.