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I am curious of how metal deposits are located in general, but to keep my question focused I wanted to just ask about tantalum for example.

Are there people who traverse their own country drilling core samples here and there? What indicators would they be looking for tantalum in particular?

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Metal oxide minerals like tantalite (tantalum) and columbite (niobium) often form placer deposits within basins and drainages. The placer deposits are a secondary ore deposits created by the weathering of tantalite/columbite bearing granite and the transport of heavy sands by water and gravity.

Based on this information, a good approach to prospecting for tantalum / niobium would be collect dark/black sand samples from stream beds within a granite mountain range and to collect samples from riverbeds flowing out of mountain ranges with exposed granite. Larger rivers with steep terrain can carry heavy sediment further away from its source area.

Example: Sawtooth Mountains in Central Idaho are a large granite batholith complex.. Salmon river and its tributaries would excellent areas to look for placer deposits (except of course most of this area is designated as National Forest land.)

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    $\begingroup$ Primary (hard rock) sources of tantalum can be found in some pegmatite deposits - particularly in south west Western Australia, at Greenbushes. For such deposits, exploration techniques for typical hard rock open cut mines are used. $\endgroup$ – Fred Jul 6 '17 at 16:49

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