A refractory metal with unique electrical, chemical, and physical properties that is used mostly as tantalum metal powder in the production of electronic components, mainly tantalum capacitors. Alloyed with other metals, tantalum is also used in making cemented carbide tools for metal working equipment, and in the production of superalloys for jet engine components. Australia, Brazil, Canada, DRC, Ethiopia, and Rwanda are leading tantalum ore producers. Tantalite, is a source for tantalum.
Tantalum is a hard, grayish-blue, metallic element. Its atomic number is 73 and its symbol is Ta. It has a very high melting point 2996°C (5425°F). This melting point is exceeded only by that of carbon, tungsten, and rhenium. Tantalum is remarkably resistant to attack by air, water and most acids.
Tantalum was discovered in 1802 by the Swedish scientist Anders Ekeberg. Commercial use of tantalum began in 1903 with the production of tantalum wire.
The electronics industry uses most of the tantalum consumed to make electronic components (tantalum capacitors). Since tantalum is so resistant to corrosion, it is used to make surgical instruments and medical equipment such as rods to attach to broken bones, skull plates, and wire meshes to help repair nerves and muscles.
Because it has such a very high melting point, it is alloyed (that is, mixed with) other metals to create alloys that are needed for very high temperature applications. Tantalum is also used in camera lenses.
Substitutes and Alternative Sources
Columbite can be used in place of tantalum to make carbides. Hafnium, Iridium, Molybdenum, Rhenium and Tungsten can be used for high-temperature situations. Aluminum and ceramics can be used in place of tantalum in electronic capacitors. The problem is, however, that most of these substitutes are not as effective as tantalum in some of these applications.
Tantalum is recovered from ore minerals such as columbite and tantalite.
About 20% of the tantalum used in the United States for example comes from recycling. The rest must be imported. Recent major sources for tantalum imports were Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada, China, Thailand, and others.