Why Tantalum is so expensive? Why is it a problem? And what can be done about it?
“Our life would never be as advanced and comfortable as it is if not for the application of tantalum and niobium.” And this is right. This is what I wrote at the very beginning of my book about tantalum and niobium chemistry.
Tantalum capacitors are everywhere: in our cellphones, computers, in about any electronic device you use. Due to the unique properties of tantalum, these capacitors provide a champion performance within the smallest size. Defibrillators and pacemakers contain tantalum capacitors because of their reliability. Tantalum is the only material that is fully compatible with the human body; therefore, parts made of tantalum are widely used in surgeries. Modern microelectronics is developing because of tantalum. The usage of tantalum allowed to replace aluminum for copper as an interconnection material. Tantalum is a barrier preventing copper diffusion into silicon-oxide-based dielectrics.
The nuclear reactor also needs tantalum. The first cooling loop is made from tantalum because only tantalum resists molten sodium which is used as a cooling agent. Lithium tantalate is used in Opto- and Acousto-electronic devices. Tantalum oxide is used in optics to change optical constant, and tantalum carbide is the most important additive in the cutting tools to achieve high hardness and wear resistance.
Tantalum usage is less over time
Tantalum is a really unique material, and it can be used much more, but its applications are not really developed anymore. Capacitors consumers are working on the replacement of tantalum capacitors, microchip manufacturers are looking for alternative materials, medical implants are very often made from stainless steel and only cover with tantalum to provide compatibility.
Why is that happening? That is a very easy question to answer. Tantalum remains an extremely expensive material. Basically, tantalum is the most expensive material in all microelectronic manufacturing.
Why is it so expensive? If we continue the Cause and Effect Chain Analysis by asking “Why? Why? Why?” we will get very fast to the fundamental reason for the problem, for the unreasonably high cost of tantalum itself.
The reason for the high price is trivial: insufficient competition. Just a few companies keep tantalum refinery processes. You will never find the names of the companies at the top of the list of innovative companies. They do not need innovations, they keep the process unchanged that keeps the price of tantalum at the highest levels possible.
Each time we buy electronic devices, the majority of the price is to cover the cost of tantalum. In other words, we pay for the lack of innovation.
Based on the current technology level, tantalum refineries, including scrap recycling, can be built very short, effective, and at a low cost. All we need is to innovate in this field.
The main part of the refinery process is hydro-metallurgy, which is wet chemistry. All these processes can be done on the ship during the transport. If both chemistry and raw material are delivered by ship, why not place the raw material into the chemistry on the ship itself?
To recycle tantalum metal scrap (anodes, pieces) into the powder, the scrap should be processed similarly to concentrate. Generally speaking, it needs to be converted to tantalum-halogenate (TaXn), separated from the balk, and reduced with relevant metal (Me) to get Ta and MeXm separately. The interaction is shown below:
Ta (Scrap) + nX --> TaXn + Me --> Ta (Powder) + MeXm
We had the success of making all these processes in the laboratory in one step in one reactor:
Now, just take into account that this method can be used for the conversion of ingots of different metals and alloys into powder.
Contact us if you are interested in such a project.