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Korea Combs Amazon for Rare Metals Used in Smartphones

Korea Combs Amazon for Rare Metals Used in Samsung Smartphones
Samsung is the world’s largest television maker and manufactures the Galaxy smartphone. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

South Korea, the world’s biggest maker of consumer-electronics memory chips, is leading the first geological study of Colombia’s rare metals as it seeks to secure supplies for Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Corp.

State-run Korean Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources is exploring for coltan, the ore that contains tantalum, in the Amazon rain forest of Colombia’s Vichada and Guainia departments, project geologist Jin Kwang Min said.

South America holds 40 percent of the world’s tantalum, used in mobile phones and tablets, according to Belgium-based industry group Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center, or TIC. South Korea targeted a 32 percent self-sufficiency rate in major mineral resources by 2012, up from 18 percent in 2007, according to the Ministry of Knowledge Economy.

“If we find good potential for coltan mines, some companies in Korea will finance further exploration,” Jin said by telephone from Seoul on March 8, without naming companies. “So far we haven’t found anything but we are returning to Colombia in early April.”

The study started last year under the auspices of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Lee Myung Bak, South Korea’s leader at the time. It covers 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) and has an initial cost of $50,000, Alexandra Orjuela, a spokeswoman for Santos’ office, said by e-mail March 5. President Park Geun Hye succeeded Lee in February.

The study will finish at the end of November and preliminary findings will be published by year-end, said Gloria Prieto, deputy director at the Colombian Geological Service, the state-run institute working with the Korean geologists.

Sales Double

“South Korea wants to guarantee tantalum supplies to their companies,” Ronald Gilerman, who runs tantalum trading company A&R Merchants Inc., said by phone from New York today.

Colombia has no official coltan deposits and so far production has come mainly from sifting Amazon tributaries. Sales doubled from a year earlier to $20.4 million in 2012, according the national statistics office.

Tantalum output disruptions in Australia and East Africa since 2009 have been offset by rising production from Brazil’s Amazon region, which has become the world’s largest source of tantalum, said Ulric Schwela, TIC’s technical officer.

“Global supply is being met but at current prices there seems to be an opportunity for new players,” Schwela said today by telephone.

Samsung is the world’s largest television maker and manufactures the Galaxy smartphone. LG is the world’s third-largest mobile-phone maker.

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