Coltan and Red Herrings

Letter from Jim Calvert

Minerals – December 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

Coltan and Red Herrings

Dear Ed,

Mr. Wolfe’s explanation of “red herring” was curious, but I think there is an easier one. A red herring is just a kipper, a smoked herring, which is oily and odoriferous. This is an old word, but still heard in England. They were (and are) used as a drag to train dogs for hunting. A kipper is tied to a string and pulled along a route, with foxy tricks like going across water, or through rocks, or forking, and the dogs are let loose to follow the trail. The dogs are given further instruction if they lose the trail. This makes the term “a red herring” comprehensible as something to divert a pack of journalists from the real affair. These are not the appalling “kippered herring” we get in cans here, but brightly colored split fish, by the way.

I wrote a web page on Coltan in January 02 commenting on Ted Koppel’s mention of it on TV. I took it as an example of the technological ignorance of the media, as well as of unnecessary mysticism. Ted obviously had no idea of what it was, but tried to look as if he did, which he is very good at. It was in his otherwise excellent and sensitive report on the hard times in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The bit reported in the November issue of Colorado Central had the essentials, and was as good an account as one can expect from a writer who knows nothing about the matter.

Most trace metals are produced as by-products of the refining of major metals, but I don’t know the situation with niobium and tantalum. (Columbium was the name given by an American chemist who thought he had filled a gap in the periodic table, but he really didn’t. Niobium was the name given by the eventual real discoverer, used everywhere but in the U.S. technical community.)

I would think that niobium would be the more valuable, since it is rarer and makes a nice tool steel alloy, but in this case it seems to be tantalum. It’s used in electrolytic capacitors, where it is possible to make a much smaller capacitor than with the usual aluminum, and so the application to miniaturized devices. So it’s not really irreplaceable, just convenient, and is not required in large amounts.

I appreciate news that is reported in proper spelling and grammar, with intelligent comment, as in Colorado Central. We don’t have much of that here in Denver. I was amused to find that my political leanings are exactly those of the co-editor, which always makes a good impression on a reader.

Best wishes,

Jim Calvert