February 2011

The world's thirstiest metal

By Dan Zlotnikov

Tantalum, hardly a household name, has become a near-ubiquitous presence in our lives, quietly making things smaller. Originally discovered in 1802 by Swedish chemist Anders Ekeberg, tantalum has an extremely high melting point — at 3,000ºC, it is the third-highest of all known metals — and very high strength and corrosion resistance. In fact, tantalum was so resistant to any acids Ekeberg immersed it in that the chemist named the metal after King Tantalus, the Greek mythological character cursed with eternal thirst.

Tantalum’s resistance to harsh environments made it highly desirable as a protective coating in challenging conditions found inside chemical process equipment and nuclear reactors. But where this silvery-grey metal truly shone was in making extremely efficient electrical capacitors — the ones present in virtually every electronic device, from in-car electronics to cellphones to desktop computers. Tantalum enabled capacitors to be made smaller without sacrificing function, which translated into ever-smaller portable electronics.

Today, says Alice Agoos, editor with the metals news and prices website Ryan’s Notes, over 60 per cent of the world’s annual tantalum production goes to capacitor manufacturers.

Other uses for tantalum include as a component in superalloys for use in extreme environments such as jet engines and in the production of cemented carbide powders, which are then used to manufacture high-strength metalworking tools.

Riding the tantalum cycle

Tantalum’s widespread use has brought greater attention to the mineral — and to concerns regarding future supply. The Australian Wodgina Mine shut down production at the end of 2008, citing unsustainably low tantalum prices. The mine’s capacity at shutdown time was the equivalent of 483 metric tonnes of pure metal — over 40 per cent of the 1,170 tonnes the USGS reports to have been produced worldwide in the same year. Now, with the economic recovery continuing and the tantalum price starting to rise, there is an expectation that Wodgina will restart production soon, says Agoos, and that will ease supply concerns.

But there is a catch. “The main users of tantalum, which are the capacitor makers, have the habit of basically panicking and overbuying, then taking a long while — and that’s really what happened the last three years — to work through the stocks of material that they had,” Agoos explains. “Once again, the capacitor manufacturers are beginning to buy and so they are going have all this stock, and at the same time, tantalum production is going to restart and we’re going to have a mess.”

Canada’s tantalum play

Although some calming news may be on the horizon, adds Agoos, citing projections of decreased consumption in 2011 from the capacitor industry. “This may alleviate the supply picture a bit,” she says.

Canada’s role in tantalum production is fairly modest, especially since the country’s only tantalum mine, TANCO, ceased production of the metal in April 2009, after 40 years of operation. But a number of operators are hoping to change the picture, with some promising deposits under development.

One of these is Commerce Resources’ Blue River project in B.C., which recently released the results of a NI 43-101 resource estimate by AMEC that shows an Indicated Resource of 36.35 million tonnes with a cutoff grade of 195 grams per tonne. “This is the confirmation of a much larger resource than we have ever established before,” says Chris Grove, the company’s director of corporate communications. “We are extremely excited by this new resource, which shows a better than 500 per cent increase in the Indicated Resource.”

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