It all begins with columbite-tantalite, which is a dull, black metallic ore. Columbite and tantalite are usually found grouped together and the two minerals can have many names, both scientific and industrial.
Columbite can be called niobite, niobite-tantalite or columbate. It is the ore or niobium and tantalum. It is described as a niobate of iron and manganese. A niobate is a salt containing an anionic grouping of niobium and oxygen according to Websters Dictionary. There is maganocolumbite, ferrocolumbite and Yttro columbite, depending on the amount of iron, maganese and Yttrium involved.
Tantalite can be iron rich. It is then called tantalite-(Fe) or ferrotantalite. Or it can be maganese rich and is called tantolite-(Mn) or maganotantalite.
The industrial name for all of this is Coltan.
Coltan is important as a reason behind historical and ongoing political and social instability of the African continent, especially in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Desire for Coltan is causing intense competition between the developed countries. As with all badly needed strategic minerals, the interference of Western and developed countries which have no significant sources of such minerals on their own soil is a longstanding and well known cause of wars, dirty wars and secret wars of destabilization as one nation vies another for supremacy in getting the available stocks of Coltan.
Publically, the same false issues as with "blood diamonds" are manufactured and pushed by the media, since income from Coltan mining helps to fund national and regional military actions and conflicts. While no one thinks of the historical and ongoing misconduct of the "legitimate" diamond industry, no one thinks of the misconduct of the developed nations who wish to control the access and the profits from Coltan.
As a result, the first importance of Coltan lies in human tragedy as a result greed for profit for strategic and commercial interest in the substance. The ways in which mining, selling and profiting are used either to divert funds from projects that support the interests of the citizenry, which remains in poverty, or to fund one conflict or another are never discussed without a bias in favor of the multinational corporations and Western nations and against warring factions within the Coltan bearing nations.
The truth about matters as they relate to Coltan will never be fully known as developed nations, buyers, sellers, for-profit mining interests and internal military and paramilitary groups hide their involvements and actions behind secrecy and behind failure to make complete public disclosure.
The second importance of Coltan lies in the wide array of uses for the components of Columbite-Tantalite. Cell phones, jet engines, camera lenses, hearing aids, pacemakers, game consoles and video and still digital cameras are a few of the electronic items that require coltan for the tantalum capacitors that are essential to their operation.
Niobium is used to create alloys, to enhance the structure of steel, for superconducting magnets, hypoallergenic components of pacemakers and a host of other metal work, including the material or alloy used in commemorative and other coins.
Tantalum helps with electronic capacitors and resistors for electronics, as an alloy and as used for improved refraction in camera lenses, and is essential to creating shaped explosives effects.
In summary, one can think of many things when the word "Coltan" is mentioned: of hundreds of products and everyday items; or of the untold and ongoing human costs and conflicts; of the commercial wealth that can be obtained and finally of the fact that none of the countries that use it can find enough of it to extract from their own soil.