With nearly 25 percent of supply off limits due to the conflict-mineral provision of new regulation, will new producers jump in?
I saw also the dreadful fate of Tantalus, who stood in a lake that reached his chin; he was dying to quench his thirst, but could never reach the water, for whenever the poor creature stooped to drink, it dried up and vanished, so that there was nothing but dry ground - parched by the spite of heaven. There were tall trees, moreover, that shed their fruit over his head - pears, pomegranates, apples, sweet figs and juicy olives, but whenever the poor creature stretched out his hand to take some, the wind tossed the branches back again to the clouds.
—The Odyssey, XI
We used the quotation above to introduce tantalum in our original article on the metal on HardAssetsInvestor back in January 2009 – Tantalum: A Modern Metal, Actually. If we used the fate of Tantalus, then, to illustrate why, in 1804, Anders Gustaf Ekeberg named his newly isolated element after this son of Zeus, perhaps now, in a more contemporary context, it better describes the predicament of many of those who seek to produce the metal.
While tantalum is one metal very much in the eye of the conflict-mineral storm, not all tantalum by far comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Unfortunately, a number of major producers elsewhere around the world are currently facing serious production problems.
Because of its high stability and high volumetric capacity, the main use (in the forms of both metal powder and wire) of tantalum remains in the manufacture of high-quality capacitors, which store electric charges. And while its use in this context globally may have diminished somewhat in the period 2007-2011, according to the U.S. Geological Survey figures, in the U.S. anyway, in 2007 and 2011, “Tantalum capacitors were estimated to account for more than 60 percent of tantalum use.”
Because of their relative expense (in contrast with cheaper aluminum and ceramic capacitors), tantalum capacitors themselves are to be found in such applications from cellphones, laptops, video and digital cameras, and PlayStation video consoles to automotive subsystems (airbags, ignition controls and ABS brakes), pacemakers and hearing aids.
Tantalum Demand: 2007 & 2011
Source: Talison Minerals
Source: Minor Metals Trade Association