Science makes Sense Week 12: Chemistry and Social Justice-Coal and Coltan mining, coal mine disasters,black lung disease, gorillas ,guns and a ghastly life..

Just before the U.S.Presidential elections in 2008, while the Republican and Democratic candidates were sparring on various issues, there was a curious agreement on one.  Both candidates supported using coal as an energy source and called it ‘clean coal’.   A Los Angeles Times’ article during this period aptly called this phrase ‘Orwellian’. (Ref. 1)

A student with a little chemistry knows that coal is mostly carbon,C, and when you burn carbon, voila, you get carbon dioxide. Coal is also a fossil fuel.   Week 8, we have already talked in detail about the oxidation reaction of carbon compounds like hydrocarbons.  More than 50% of our energy resources comes from coal,(Ref. 2) so we are adding considerably to the carbon content in the atmosphere and contributing to climate change burning coal, besides depending more and more on automobiles and planes.(Week 8)

Years ago, it was hazardous just to go down the coal mines.  (Even today, in certain parts of the world, the conditions at work inside mines are horrific and dangerous.) (See Nuggets of Information)   Lack of oxygen and long hours inside the mines is unhealthy; add to that the inhalation of small particles of coal dust causing lung diseases and explosions.   Mine areas are constructed with minimal reinforcements and there is always the danger of collapsing of structures and trapping miners who could die a slow and terrible death underground.(Ref. 3)  Even till  the early part of the 20th century miners carried canaries with them in cages.  If the canaries died, they knew there wasn’t sufficient oxygen for the humans and the canaries had died inhaling carbon monoxide,CO.(Ref. 4)

2C  +  O2    →    2CO

C  +  O2    →         CO2

This is partial oxidation of Carbon, C.  Complete oxidation of C leads to carbon dioxide, as shown in the second equation. There is also sufficient methane in the coal mines as well.  During the coal manufacturing process mercury, Hg,  and uranium, U, are by-products.(Ref. 5)   Mercury can lead to renal, gastrointestinal and neurological,toxicity,(Ref. 6) while uranium is radioactive and can affect human cells.  As you can see,there is no part of the coal mining process that is clean.

Today it is not just coal that is being mined.  There are  areas in the Congo where ‘Coltan’ mining takes place.  This is short for Columbite and Tantalite, compounds of Niobium and Tantalum.(Ref. 7) These two elements, Niobium,Nb, and Tantalum,Ta, are in the same Group and below Vanadium, V, in the Periodic Table.  They are part of the Transition Elements, also called rare metals.  The transition metals are where the 10 electrons in the ‘d’ shell are being filled. (Ref. 8)  

What is so special about these two elements?  Tantalum, or Ta, when powdered with its oxide is used in mobile cellular phones and other electronic devices as a capacitor. (Ref.9) A capacitor stores electrical charge and controls the flow of electrical current, also called a condenser.(Ref.10)  Ta is extremely good at conducting heat as well as electricity, making it a favorite metal to use in small electronic devices (Ref.9)  Nb, on the other hand is not used in electronic devices, but is very widely used in making stainless steel, in the construction of space ships and for making jewellery.(Ref.11)  It just happens to be found alongside Tantalum as Coltan.

The mining process in the Congo is not as tedious and hazardous; however the conditions for the workers is deplorable. Teenage and child workers are usually working long hours in the mines. Rwanda which is next door is involved in a Civil War with the Congo, fighting for rights on the Coltan mines, exploiting and killing people in the process.  In addition, the digging of mountains and areas in that region is affecting the gorilla and other wildlife population considerably.  But there is a lot of money that can be obtained from mining Coltan, so people, the army, the rebel forces are rushing in to grab what they can, extracting money from the workers. (Ref.12) This reminds one of the Gold Rush days of North America in the 19th century.  There have been attempts made by electronic companies that sell smart phones to look for other sources in the world for Coltan. However war-torn Central Africa still supplies one-fourth of the world’s supply and the rest comes from the Amazon area in South America, and maybe parts of Australia. (Ref.13) Unfortunately, conditions are similar to what is happening in the Congo; only the venue has changed.

Meanwhile, the craze for the latest smart tablet or phone is never-ending as well as our thirst for fossil fuel energy from coal.  We as a society have to decide if human rights violations, health of humans and the degradation of the environment and fauna and flora is worth this madness for the latest technological marvel or our continuing dependence on fossil fuel.  Can we as a species arrive at a meaningful and sustainable solution?


Activities for Middle School Teachers:

Watch the movie by John Sayles about West Virginia coal miners called “Matewan’.(Ref.14)

Let the students look at coal mine disasters in the 21st century, throughout  the world.

Study the gold rush, oil rush and today’s Coltan rush and document the similarities and differences.

Do an experiment studying capacitors.  Capacitors store electrical energy and springs store mechanical energy, graph charge versus voltage for capacitors and force versus displacement for springs. (Ref. 15 )

Tantalum and Niobium along with Cobalt and few metalloids are called rare metals, and the  rare earth elements are the Lanthanides and Actinides in the Periodic Table. (Ref.16,17)

Compare and contrast properties and uses of these two: rare metals and rare earth elements.

The origins of the names for Tantalum and Niobium comes from Greek mythology.  Find out the significance of this.

Nuggets of information:

This year,2015, marks the bicentenary of the Safety Lamp created by Humphrey Davy and Stephenson who both independently worked on a lamp for miners.  Both fought for rights for the discovery, but the lamp was named after Sir Humphrey Davy, called the Davy Safety Lamp. The flame in the lamp changed color if methane gas was found in the mines and was carried by miners inside the coal mines. (Ref.18)

The 5 largest coal mining/producing areas in the U.S. are Wyoming with almost 40% of the total U.S. production; next is West Virginia (12%), followed by Kentucky (8%) and Illinois and Pennsylvania (5% each). (Ref.19)

If you look at the number of coal mine disasters in West Virginia over a 110 year period, from the late 19th century till recently, one sees that there is an average of more than one mine disaster per year!  Most of them are because of some sort of explosion in the mine.(Ref.20)  The latest well-known mine disaster there occurred in 2010 in the Upper Big Branch Mine  owned by Massey Energy where 29 miners lost their lives and was due to methane gas leaking with resulting explosions. Compensation and law suits are still being settled.(Ref.21)

China, India, Japan, South Africa, Wales,to name a few countries, have had several coal mine disasters over the years.(Ref.22) There is also child labor involved in some countries, especially in Northeast India even today. Several non-profit agencies are trying to find opportunities for children to avoid the dangerous and often fatal work in India.(Ref.23)  BP , the oil company states that India, US, Russia, China and Australia have the highest coal reserves.(Ref.24)

Mountain top removal is the latest way of looking for coal, especially in the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern United States. This strips the land causing water shortages, the land is laid out to waste and frequent floods and health problems affect the people who live there. (Ref 25)

Black lung disease was very common  before the 70s in the US. This is a disease that is usually found in miners with prolonged exposure to coal dust.  One would have thought with the regulations imposed after the 1970s, cases of this disease would disappear.  Unfortunately, many of the 29 men who died in the mine disaster from West Virginia suffered from this disease.(Ref.26)

There is mining of not just coal and Coltan in the world that causes environmental and human rights violations. There are mines for manganese, gold, silver, copper tin and diamonds. and in all these cases there is small-scale and large-scale mining.  There are jobs created but there are many diseases, lack of clean water and all the other problems mentioned above(Ref.27)

One meaningful way to lower the demand for more Coltan is to recycle old, unused electronic devices; many neighborhood programs conduct such recycling programs.

Since coal is not really clean energy, we need to be. investing more in solar and wind energy here in the U.S.









8.Hein, Morris & Arena, Susan, Foundations of College Chemistry,pp.215,6 (John Wiley and sons, 2007)

























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