Niobe earned the ire of the gods by bragging about her seven lovely daughters and seven “handsome sons—whom the easily offended Olympians soon slaughtered for her impertinence. Tantalus, Niobe’s father, killed his own son and served him at a royal banquet. As punishment, Tantalus had to stand for all eternity up to his neck in a river, with a branch loaded with apples dangling above his nose. Whenever he tried to eat or drink, however, the fruit would be blown away beyond his grasp or the water would recede. Still, while elusiveness and loss tortured Tantalus and Niobe, it is actually a surfeit of their namesake elements that has decimated central Africa.
There’s a good chance you have tantalum or niobium in your pocket right now. Like their periodic table neighbors, both are dense, heat-resistant, noncorrosive metals that hold a charge well—qualities that make them vital for compact cell phones. In the mid-1990s cell phone designers started demanding both metals, especially tantalum, from the world’s largest supplier, the Democratic Republic of Congo, then called Zaire. Congo sits next to Rwanda in central Africa, and most of us probably remember the Rwandan butchery of the 1990s. But none of us likely remembers the day in 1996 when the ousted Rwandan government of ethnic Hutus spilled into Congo seeking “refuge. At the time it seemed just to extend the Rwandan conflict a few miles west, but in retrospect it was a brush fire blown right into a decade of accumulated racial kindling. Eventually, nine countries and two hundred ethnic tribes, each with its own ancient alliances and unsettled grudges, were warring in the dense jungles.
Nonetheless, if only major armies had been involved, the Congo conflict likely would have petered out. Larger than Alaska and dense as Brazil, Congo is even less accessible than either by roads, meaning it’s not ideal for waging a protracted war. Plus, poor villagers can’t afford to go off and fight unless there’s money at stake. Enter tantalum, niobium, and cellular technology. Now, I don’t mean to impute direct blame. Clearly, cell phones didn’t cause the war—hatred and grudges did. But just as clearly, the infusion of cash perpetuated the brawl. Congo has 60 percent of the world’s supply of the two metals, which blend together in the ground in a mineral called coltan. Once cell phones caught on—sales rose from virtually zero in 1991 to more than a billion by 2001—the West’s hunger proved as strong as Tantalus’s, and coltan’s price grew tenfold. People purchasing ore for cell phone makers didn’t ask and didn’t care where the coltan came from, and Congolese miners had no idea what the mineral was used for, knowing only that white people paid for it and that they could use the profits to support their favorite militias.
Oddly, tantalum and niobium proved so noxious because coltan was so democratic. Unlike the days when crooked Belgians ran Congo’s diamond and gold mines, no conglomerates controlled coltan, and no backhoes and dump trucks were necessary to mine it. Any commoner with a shovel and a good back could dig up whole pounds of the stuff in creek beds (it looks like thick mud). In just hours, a farmer could earn twenty times what his neighbor did all year, and as profits swelled, men abandoned their farms for prospecting. This upset Congo’s already shaky food supply, and people began hunting gorillas for meat, virtually wiping them out, as if they were so many buffalo. But gorilla deaths were nothing compared to the human atrocities. It’s not a good thing when money pours into a country with no government.
Sam Kean (The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements)