Korea scours Colombia for valuable substances

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.

4 thoughts on “Korea scours Colombia for valuable substances”

  1. The primary reason for this is that Coltan mining in Africa is moral, economic and ecological atrocity. It is mined using convict and child labour and the environments that it often gets pulled from are left trashed. Think “Blood Diamonds” but this time used in mobile phone components. Unethically sourced, untraceable and yet essential for a modern world device.

    The Columbia project is potentially just greenwash of a form, but if it pays off there is also the idea that you don’t have to ship this stuff halfway around the world from Africa to the far east, and potentially have complete control over the production process.

    Other than that, you’ve now got to wonder if your mobile phone is “Ethically Sourced.” Unfortunately, it probably isn’t.

    Tim adds: Erm, I think you’re rather over egging the pudding here.

    Firstly, only a minority of global tantalum comes from anywhere in Africa at all (and an even smaller minority of niobium, the “col” in “coltan”). By far the majority comes from large and well run mines in places like Oz and Canada. Secondly, of the coltan that does come from Africa a good amount of it is entirely ethically mined. Might be artisanal mining, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Then even the stuff from Congo, even only a minority of that is using that, as you say, vile forced labour and slavery. A reasonable guess would be that DRC supplies 6 to 8% of global tantalum, and that less than half of that has anything at all to do with the militias. And that’s a very generous and high estimate.

    And processing it: the biggest processors are in Oz, Germany, Japan and the US. So there already is pretty good control over the whole process.

    And finally, there’s a vast tantalum mine opening in Egypt soon. So there’s no great need to find more resources of it anyway.

  2. It’s funny to see this sort of stuff in the newspapers. I was talking to some geologist friends of mine recently and they told me it happens all the time. They sometimes go to developing countries and prospect during their holidays as a sideline.

  3. So Much for Subtlety

    In this sort of exploration $50k buys you two men in a boat for a month or two.

    Wages must be cheap in Colombia. Because given this is prime cocoa growing territory, you couldn’t pay most people $50,000 to spend a weekend there on a boat. At least not if their wives have anything to say about it.

    On the other hand maybe it is a front? The region is, as I said, a hot bed of cocoa growing, Colombia has rum and legal prostitution. $50k could be a really good weekend for some South Korean executives who do have wives and so need an excuse.

    Current, I know a geologist in a former colony, not exactly developing mind you, who does so every weekend. Packs a tent, gets in the car, drives out into the middle of nowhere and chips some rocks away. I guess he has been married a long time.

  4. Actually much of the coltan that is “obtained” in
    Colombia comes from small extraction and small smugglers out of just one and very close, neighboring country, which, for reporting purposes, has been labeled as coming from the “Amazonia”.

    Colombia simply acts as a launderer for the Coltan in order to have a bonafide legal country of origin for shipping purposes.

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