Tantalum (pronounced ‘tan-talum’) is an important element in modern electronics. It is dense, heat-resistant and noncorrosive. It also holds a charge well, making it essential for cell phones. It is also used for surgical instruments and implants because it is nonirritating and can withstand the body’s fluids.
It is a ductile metal with a brilliant silvery lustre, and is found in the Earth’s crust in concentrations of up to three parts per million. It was discovered in 1923 by Dutch physicist Dirk Coster and Hungarian Swedish chemist George Charles von Hevesy, who named it after the city of Copenhagen.
Australia ranks first in the world for tantalum production. There is also a large supply of the mineral in Central Africa, but reliable resource estimates are difficult to find.
Demand for tantalum is strong across a wide range of applications. It is used to make alloys, superalloys and other components that improve ductility, strength and melting point at high temperatures.
Its use in the aerospace industry is particularly important for the manufacture of a number of critical components. In particular, tantalum is used to increase the strength and corrosion resistance of the turbine blades.
In addition, it is used to increase the refractoriness of ceramics. These ceramics can be used in thermal protection systems on high-speed vehicles and as fuel cladding in nuclear reactors.
The market for tantalum has been volatile recently. Prices have risen sharply as demand from the aerospace, industrial gas turbine and semiconductor industries has outstripped supply. However, prices have stabilized at the moment as end-users seek to cover themselves for the next few months.