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Product Spotlight: Tantulum

The chemical element tantalum, or Ta, serves many purposes in science and medicine. It is also present in the components of many consumer electrical goods. Its role in electrochemistry is also very important in its inclusion in many electronic consumer goods.

Tantalum has a wide range of properties and applications in its different forms. From soft to brittle, foil to powder, this versatile and rare element is understandably in much demand.

Tantalum is a hard, dark blue-grey coloured transitional metal. These are elements that all share certain characteristic properties due to the number of electrons on the d-shell of their atoms, making them good conductors of heat and electricity.

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The most common use for tantalum today is in electronic components, particularly capacitors. This is largely due to its ability to provide a very thin oxide surface layer, or ‘dielectric layer’ in electrochemical processes. This layer is thinner than other metals like aluminium, which makes it much lighter. This allows significant weight savings to be achieved, making tantalum an very appropriate choice for use in mobile technologies and electronics.

It is also one of the refractory metals, which are known for their solid state at room temperature (with the exception of mercury) and melting points above 2000 degrees Celsius. Tantalum has a melting point of 3017 degrees Celsius and a boiling point of 5458 degrees Celsius, higher than copper and nickel, but lower than Tungsten and Rhenium.

Tantalum is also almost impervious to wear and corrosion due to an oxide film on its surface. 

The ceramic Tantalum-carbide is an extremely hard compound that is often used for cutting tools.  In many cases, it is used in preference to Tungsten-carbide.

One of the hardest ceramic materials made so far is tantalum carbide-graphite.

Tantalum’s ductile properties in its pure form make it perfect for drawing out into very fine wire filaments, which can be used for evaporating metals like aluminium.

Along with the element niobium, tantalum is used as a cheaper replacement to platinum, one of the most expensive elements in the world. Despite its use as a substitute to platinum, tantalum is fifteen times less abundant than gold, making up a mere 1.5×10−4% of the Earth’s crust. Much like platinum – and predominantly why it is used as a substitute – tantalum is not affected by most acids, including aqua regia. It does, however, dissolve with hydrofluoric acid. Due to its high tolerance to acids, Tantalum is an ideal material for laboratory vessels and pipes, which are needed to transport corrosive liquids.

In its role as a substitute element, tantalum is commonly used for medical purposes, such as laboratory equipment and dentistry. This can vary from vessels and trays to forceps and utensils.  As the element is also highly acid-resistant and a non-irritant for humans, it is used in medical implants and bone repair.

First found in 1802 by the Swedish chemist Anders Ekeberg, there followed years of debate between scientists as to whether it was a new element or in fact the same as niobium. In 1866 it was finally established that tantalum was an element in its own right, although very similar to niobium. Tantalum wasn’t extracted in its first relatively pure form until 1907 by von Bolton, a German chemist and materials scientist. Tantalum is now used in many modern day products – particularly in capacitors and high power resistors in technology such as video game stations, DVD players, computers and mobile phones.

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