Global Tantalum Production, Conflict Minerals and The U. S. Dodd-Frank Act – What You Should Know

Global Tantalum Production, Conflict Minerals and The U. S. Dodd-Frank Act – What You Should Know

Global Tantalum Production, Conflict Minerals and The U. S. Dodd-Frank Act – What You Should Know

According to The U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, Significant U.S. tantalum mine production has not been reported since 1959. Domestic tantalum resources are of low grade, some are mineralogically complex, and most are not commercially recoverable. Companies in the United States produce tantalum alloys, capacitors, compounds, and tantalum metal from imported tantalum ores and concentrates and tantalum-containing materials.

Import Sources (2014–17): Tantalum ore and concentrate: Brazil, 35%; Rwanda, 31%; Australia, 15%; Congo (Kinshasa), 8%; and other, 11%. Tantalum metal and powder: China, 40%; Germany, 18%; Kazakhstan, 17%; Thailand, 11%; and other, 14%. Tantalum waste and scrap: Austria, 16%; Mexico, 14%; China, 11%; Indonesia, 10%; and other 49%.

Global tantalum production shifted in the early 2000’s. Prior to the shift, Australia & Brazil were the major tantalum mining countries. Beginning in 2007, the DRC, Rwanda, and other African countries became the major sources of tantalum production. The production shift from Australia was a result of high extraction costs and an unfavorable exchange rate, which meant that mining tantalum ore in Australia was no longer economically viable.

The shifting of tantalum production to the DRC, Rwanda and other African nations raised the concerns about tantalum’s status as a conflict mineral. Conflict minerals, as defined by the SEC and Dodd-Frank Act, include the metals tantalum, tin, and tungsten.

Conflict materials by definition, are used to fund armed rebels and civil violence. Countries with a long history of civil war and unrest, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, hold some of the richest tantalum deposits. The Dodd Frank Act was legislated to reduce trade in conflict resources in order to stop the violence associated with the extraction of minerals by armed groups in several African nations.

Conflict minerals can be mined around the world. The Dodd Frank Act and the SEC rule define conflict minerals as 3TG metals (tungsten, tin & tantalum), wherever extracted. A 3TG metal mined in Canada, Russia or Brazil is considered a conflict mineral by definition. However, the SEC rule defines minerals as “DRC conflict-free” when they are mined in a country that does not directly or indirectly benefit armed groups in the covered countries.

The Dodd-Frank Act means that companies must now trace the source of these minerals and only use accredited resources for their supply. Manufacturers are now required to audit their supply chains and report the use of conflict minerals.

Rwanda, a major global source of tantalum concentrate and tantalum metal, has a good reputation for policing and assuring reasonable mining practices. The mining practices of The DRC (Democratic Republic of the Condo) on the other hand, have suffered from decades of internal strife and civil war which has fractured their society and resulted in armed groups fighting for governance of the mines and creating smuggling routes for the minerals, which fund their activities.  In addition, the DRC government has historically maintained very little control over the mining of minerals.

There is some good news for those of us that use tantalum and would welcome new sources for “DRC conflict-free” tantalum;

Tantalum Production in Australia to Take a Big Jump

The tantalum supply chain is about to undergo a dramatic change as lithium producers come on-line in Australia and ramp up lithium production along with tantalum which is a by-product of lithium mining. (Lithium is used in battery production for cars, windmills, solar and various battery-powered electronic devices).

Two companies in Western Australia began producing tantalite concentrates as byproducts of lithium operations in 2018. One company operated its Bald Hill lithium and tantalum mine and began production in April, and the other operated its Pilgangoora lithium tantalum project and completed its first shipment of concentrates in September. In addition, tantalum by-product production at Talison’s lithium Greenbushes mine in Western Australia is expected to take a big jump in coming years. Tantalum production from Australian producers could be as much as 136 tons which is a significant amount, given that global production of primary tantalum in 2018 was ~1,840 tons.

The production increases in Australia will be competition for the established Africa producers, which currently dominate the tantalum market. The Lower cost of producing tantalum as a by-product of Lithium production puts Australia in a favorable position to take market share from African producers, which will result in new sources for conflict-free tantalum and lower average concentrate prices.

Mine production 2017 & 2018 (Data in metric tons of tantalum content) based on US Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries;

Country 2017 2018 Change
United States 0 0
Australia 83 90 8%
Brazil 110 100 -9%
China 110 120 9%
DRC Congo 760 710 -7%
Ethiopia 65 70 8%
Nigeria 153 150 -2%
Rwanda 441 500 13%
Other 83 100 20%
Total 1805 1840 2%

Source: US Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries