Tantalum is an element found in many ways in our everyday lives, improving technology and material performance. Its many applications include uses in electronics, medicine, engineering and energy generation.
Tantalum was discovered by Anders Gustaf Ekenberg, a Swedish chemist, in 1802 in minerals obtained from Ytterby, Sweden. Many scientists believed that he had only discovered an allotrope of niobium, an element that is chemically similar to tantalum. The issue was finally settled in 1866 when, Jean Charles Galissard de Marignac, a Swiss chemist, proved that tantalum and niobium were two distinct elements. The first relatively pure samples of tantalum were first produced in 1907. Today, tantalum is primarily obtained from the minerals columbite ((Fe, Mn, Mg)(Nb, Ta)2O6), tantalite ((Fe, Mn)(Ta, Nb)2O6) and euxenite ((Y, Ca, Er, La, Ce, U, Th)(Nb, Ta, Ti)2O6).
Tantalum has unique attributes that make it suitable for several specific purposes. It has an exceedingly high melting point (about 3,000° C), is highly corrosion-resistant, alloys well with other metals, is superconductive for electricity and, most importantly, has an excellent capacity to store and release an electrical charge.
Uses for Tantalum
About half of the tantalum consumed each year is used in the electronics industry, mainly as powder and wire for capacitors, owing to tantalum's particular ability to store and release electrical energy. This allows components to be exceptionally small and they are therefore favoured in space-sensitive high-end applications in telecommunications, data storage and implantable medical devices. Tantalum is also used for electronic sound filters and as a barrier against copper diffusion in semi-conductors. Tantalum carbide's hardness makes it ideal for cutting tools.
Tantalum metal and tantalum pentoxide (Ta2O5), one of tantalum's compounds, are mainly used in electronics to make a part called a capacitor. It allows the capacitors to be very small and is ideal for high technology uses including digital cameras and video cameras, mobile phones, laptop computers, LCD/Plasma televisions, and data storage devices.
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While the bulk of demand for tantalum capacitors comes from the handheld and gaming markets, as designers cram greater functionality into these ever-shrinking devices, there has also been quite a bit of activity in high reliability markets including military, automotive and medical that require higher performance components.
Tantalum capacitors are also in car electronics such as anti-lock braking systems (ABS), navigation systems, wheel traction control, airbag inflation, engine management and fuel economy. Medical uses include heart pacemakers, implanted auto-defibrillators and hearing aids.
Tantalum is a strong, ductile metal that is nearly immune to chemical attack at room temperatures. It can be drawn into a fine wire that is used to evaporate metals, such as aluminum. It has a high melting point and is frequently used as a substitute for platinum, which is more expensive. Tantalum is used to make components for chemical plants, nuclear power plants, airplanes and missiles. Tantalum does not react with bodily fluids and is used to make surgical equipment. Tantalum also does not irritate the body and is used to make surgical sutures as well as implants, such as artificial joints and cranial plates. Tantalum is alloyed with steel to increase steel's ductility, strength and melting point.
It is also used to make a glass with a high index of refraction that is used in camera lenses. A composite consisting of tantalum carbide (TaC) and graphite is one of the hardest materials known and is used on the cutting edges of high-speed machine tools.
World's Consumption of Tantalum
The two main buyers of tantalum raw materials are the processors HC Starck GmbH and Cabot Corp. Other processors include those located in China (Ningxia Non-ferrous Metals Import and Export Corp., Jiujiang Tanbre Smelter, Jiujiang Jinxin Non-ferrous Metals Co Ltd.), Estonia (AS Silmet), Japan (Mitsui Mining & Smelting Co Ltd.), Kazakhstan (NAC Kazatomprom) and Russia (Solikamsk Magnesium Works).
Main Sources of Tantalum Raw Materials
Tantalum ores are found primarily in Australia, Canada, Brazil, and central Africa, with some additional quantities originating in southeast Asia. The average yearly growth rate of about 8% to 12% in tantalum demand since about 1995 has caused a significant increase in exploration for this element.
Tantalum minerals of the greatest economic importance are tantalite, microlite, and wodginite; however, it is common practice to name any tantalum-containing mineral concentrate as 'tantalite' primarily because it will be processed for the tantalum values and is sold on that basis. Tantalum mineral concentrates may contain from two to more than five different tantalum-bearing minerals from the same mining area. The sale of tantalum mineral concentrates is based on a certified analysis for the tantalum oxide they contain, with a range from 10% or 15% to over 60% depending on the mine source.
The single largest source of tantalum mineral concentrates is the production by Talison Minerals Pty Ltd. from its mine in Western Australia. They produce between 25% and 35% of the world's supply, with production reported at approximately 1.4 million pounds Ta2O5. Additional operating mines are the Tanco Mine (Cabot) in Manitoba, Canada, the Kenticha Mine (Ethiopia Minerals Development Authority) in Ethiopia, the Yichun Mine in China, and the Pitinga Mine (Paranapanema) and Mibra Mine (Metallurg) in Brazil.
Additional quantities are available from Brazil through the processing of small alluvial deposits by prospectors and in numerous countries in Africa such as Rwanda, Namibia, Uganda, DRC, Gabon, Nigeria, South Africa, and Burundi.
Due to political instability and associated risk, mining investment in Africa has been significantly curtailed. The central African countries of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC-Kinshasa) and Rwanda and their neighbors in the past had been the source of significant tonnages. Civil war, plundering of national parks and exporting of minerals, diamonds and other natural resources to provide funding of militias has caused the organizations such as the Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center to call on its members to take care to obtain their raw materials from lawful sources. Members are strongly encouraged to refrain from purchasing materials from regions where either human welfare or wildlife are threatened.
Price of Tantalum
Unlike other metals, tantalum does not trade as a commodity in recognized metal markets. Consequently, tantalum trades in negotiated markets. This leaves considerable power with suppliers particularly during an up market.
Worldwide Companies Using Tantalum
Tantalum capacitors are used by many large international corporations:
- Sony Corporation
- Motorola Inc.
Computer Hardware Users:
- Cisco Systems Inc.
- Nortel Networks Corporation
- Intel Corporation
- Hewlett-Packard Company
- Dell Computer Corporation
- Compaq Computer Corporation
- Seagate Technology Inc.