Tantalum: a responsive market
Martin Labrecque, Charles Maurice, Denis Raymond,
Patrice Roy and N'Golo Togola
What is it?
Tantalum (symbol Ta, atomic number 73) is a blue-grey metal that is dense (16.7 g/cm3), ductile, very hard, corrosion-resistant and a good conductor of heat and electricity. Due to its physical properties, tantalum plays an increasingly important role in the fields of electronics and superalloys.
Tantalite is the main ore mineral for tantalum. There are several other lesser tantalum ore minerals, namely microlite, wodginite, euxenite, polycrase and columbite-tantalite. Tantalum is also commonly found in niobium minerals (pyrochlore, loparite).
At the beginning of the 1800s, it was even thought that tantalum and niobium were the same element.
In 2008, more than 70 % of the world’s tantalum was used in metallic powder form to manufacture electronic components, mainly capacitors. Tantalum is also used as an additive in superalloys (aeronautics industry), in the chemical industry, in the manufacture of surgical instruments and implants, and as a filter for x-rays in the field of optics.
Uses of world tantalum production in 2008
Source: USGS and Gippsland Ltd, 2010.
The tantalum market
The tantalum market, being relatively limited, is subject to rapid and sporadic changes. Adding just a few new mining projects can dramatically affect global supply, whereas just a handful of new tantalum-bearing products can significantly impact global demand. Price is directly affected by this mechanism of supply and demand.
The worldwide production of tantalum has grown considerably since the 1990s, particularly in response to the demand for high-tech components. Most of the global production of tantalum (70%) comes from mines in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda. About one third of the tantalum is derived from recycling processes or synthetic concentrates. About 2% of the world’s production comes from inventory accumulated during the technology bubble, before 2001.
Source: USGS, 2010. Provisional data.
* Does not include recycling activities or production from illegal mines (see below).
According to information from the mining company Global Advanced Metals, African countries represent about 40% of the world’s production of tantalum when the production from illegal mines is taken into account (about 700 tonnes in 2009). The real total for global tantalum mine production was therefore closer to 2,000 tonnes in 2008 and in 20092.
Many illegal mines of “coltan” (short for columbite-tantalite, a mineral containing niobium and tantalum) operate in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other African countries. The supply from these mines enters global markets (mainly destined for China) and the proceeds are used to finance civil wars and the purchase of military equipment. The use of forced labour in the mines has been a contributing factor in keeping tantalum prices relatively low for many years. The industry and even some governments are setting up tracking methods that will identify the source of tantalum products and prevent the supply from illegal mines from entering the market.
Tantalum is not traded on the world’s regulated markets. Instead, it is governed by long-term agreements between mining companies, smelters and metal producers. The data for tantalum spot prices in specialized publications are only indicative of real prices and trends.
Sources : USGS and MetalPrices.com.
In Québec, the most advanced project is the Crevier Project north of Lac Saint-Jean, held by Minière du Nord. With indicated resources of 25.8 Mt at 1,860 ppm Nb2O5 and 199 ppm Ta2O5, ongoing metallurgical tests, and a feasibility study expected in early 2011, the project is at the development stage.
Québec has a number of geological settings that are favourable for the discovery of tantalum-bearing deposits from which tantalum could be mined as the main or secondary economic substance. There are several deposit types in Québec that could contain tantalum4 and an overview of their distribution across the province is presented on rare metal mineralization maps (PDF Format, 1,78 Mb).
Type 1 :This type of mineralization is associated with lithium-bearing granitic pegmatites that may or may not contain tantalum. In Québec, mineralization of this type is found only in the Superior Province and the Abitibi-Témiscamingue and James Bay regions. It is the same type of mineralization as the Tanco mine in Manitoba. The potential for new discoveries in Québec is excellent, namely in the James Bay region. Several lithium showings have not yet been systematically analyzed for tantalum or niobium. An example would be the Rose deposit, in the James Bay region, which also contains tantalum resources.
Type 2 : This type of mineralization is associated with syenite and carbonatite complexes. It is the most favourable context for discovering tantalum mineralization. The Crevier and Niocan projects, and the Niobec mine, all belong to this type. The potential for discovering new carbonatites in Québec is high, especially in the north of the province, where geoscientific information is less detailed.
Type 3 : This type of mineralization is associated with hyperalkaline intrusive complexes. They contain rare earth elements as the main substances, but may also yield significant tantalum and niobium grades.
Undetermined type : Several niobium and tantalum showings that do not fall into any of the above-mentioned genetic deposit types have been identified within the Grenville Province of Québec. A more in-depth examination of the geological settings hosting these showings could lead to the discovery of atypical deposits.
United States Geological Survey (USGS), 2010. Colakis, M. and Joan, M., Classical mythology & more, 2007.
According to Roskill Information Services, the world production of tantalum was 2,430 tonnes Ta in 2008.
Roskill Information Services, USGS, and The Wall Street Journal.
Classification according to Boily and Gosselin, 2004 – report ET 2004-01.