Tantalum is a rare, grey-blue metal found in approximately 15% of the world’s pegmatites. Tantalum has a number of properties that make it a valuable commodity today, including:
- High boiling point (5425°C)
- High melting point (2997°C)
- Resistance to corrosion
- Ductile, ie it alloys well
- Low co-efficient of thermal expansion
- High co-efficient of capacitance
The electronics industry is the single largest consumer of tantalum today, accounting for approximately 60% of total demand. Tantalum’s major application in the electronics industry is in the manufacture of capacitors, devices that regulate the flow of electricity within an integrated circuit. Tantalum capacitors are found in many everyday devices such as mobile phones, video cameras, Sony Playstation’s and laptop computers. Another fast growing application for tantalum is as an alloy in the manufacture of turbine blades for power stations and jet engines - tantalum improves structural integrity of the blades at high temperatures enabling the turbines to operate at higher temperatures, thereby increasing their fuel efficiency.
Other applications include:
- Tantalum wafers in high-performance integrated circuits, to prevent molecular ‘bleeding’ in the silicon - copper join.
- Tantalum wave-filters in wireless communications networks
Geologically tantalum often occurs with tin and until relatively recently, tantalum was regarded as an impurity that attracted penalties to the tin price. Tin was historically produced via dredge operations, mainly in South-East Asia, that resulted in large, often high grade tantalum bearing tin slags. Historically, reprocessed tin slags were the largest source of tantalum. Over time however, these slags have been depleted and have become less important as a source of tantalum.
Australia and Africa each supply approximately 25% of global demand. While Sons of Gwalia ("SGW") produces 25% of global demand from its two operations in Western Australia, African supply from a number of countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Ethiopia is from a large number of very small operations. The single largest operation in Africa is Kenticha in Ethiopia, which produces approximately 150,000 lbs pa.
Unlike many of the more common metals like nickel and copper, tantalum is not traded in a central market, it is consequently very difficult to determine the tantalum price.
One indicator of the strength of tantalum demand is the price achieved by the United States Defense Logistics Agency ("USDLA") tenders for its stockpiled material. The USDLA has a fixed sales programme and publishes the prices achieved through those tenders. One should note that the prices achieved are not necessarily a reflection of the prices achieved by any given producer.