Tantalum is a hard, bluish grey, transition metal. Previously it was known as tantalium and is a rare earth metal. It is characterized by its incredibly high melting point which is bettered only by tungsten, rhenium, osmium and carbon. Tantalum along with similar metals such as Neobium, can be found in minerals such as coltan, columbite and tantalite. Most of the tantalum is derived from hard rock mines; however it can also be obtained from tin slags, and artisanal mines. Tantalite is highly resistant to corrosion and is a part of the refractory metals group.
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The main application of tantalum is in the electronics industry where it is employed in manufacturing capacitors and high power resistors. In this application, tantalum has to compete with low cost ceramic and aluminum capacitors. As a result tantalums’ use is mostly limited to high end capacitors where stability and high volumetric capacity is of paramount importance. Other electronic applications of tantalum are sputtering targets and target acoustic wave filters. Apart from that tantalum finds application in medical devices, chemical processing and manufacturing of super alloys. Tantalum-oxide is used in camera lenses as well as X-ray equipments, while tantalum carbide is used to manufacture cutting tools.
One of the major drivers of this market is the growing importance and demand for electronic gadgets and equipments. Tantalum alloys are used extensively in aviation and land based gas turbine, and the demand from this sector is expected to rise at a brisk pace in the near future owing to the high growth in aviation and aerospace industries. The same is true for land based gas turbines as well. The highest quantity of tantalum demand is expected to come from tantalum powder/ wire application, followed by its application in super alloys.
Most of the tantalum that is mined globally comes from Africa, where the largest resource of tantalum is present. Tantalum is widely available in Central Africa as well as other parts of the region. Countries such as Rwanda, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Gabon, Zimbabwe and Namibia have huge tantalum deposits and cumulatively account for over 50% of the global production. Tantalum is also abundant in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the metal from DRC is called conflict tantalum, as the metal mined in the conflict region is sold to perpetuate warfare. A ban on importing or trading conflict metals has been imposed, which is expected to hurt the Central African economy and the local people. The blanket ban is also expected to affect other regions of Africa which are not conflict zones. Other than Africa, tantalum is mined in South American countries such as Brazil and Argentina; European countries such as Germany and Austria; and Asian countries such as Australia, Japan, Thailand and China. The mining of tantalum in North America is almost negligible; however mining activities are expected to commence in the near future. The Central African crisis and ban on tantalum imports are expected to drive demand from the Asia Pacific and South American countries.
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