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The History of Tungsten, the Strongest Natural Metal on Earth

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The History of Tungsten, the Strongest Natural Metal on Earth

The History of Tungsten

With a tensile strength of 1,510 megapascals, we now know tungsten as the strongest naturally occurring metal on Earth.

Today’s infographic is from Almonty Industries, a tungsten producer, and it reveals the history of tungsten.

Interestingly, the infographic shows that despite tungsten’s strength, most of civilization has lived without any practical use of the metal. That’s because tungsten wasn’t officially discovered until the 18th century – though, as you will see, it was a thorn in the side of metallurgists for many centuries before that.

From the Heavens

Like all elements with an atomic number higher than iron, tungsten cannot be created by nuclear fusion in stars like our sun.

Instead, tungsten is thought to be formed from the explosions of massive stars. Each supernova explosion has so much energy, that these newly created elements are jettisoned at incredible speeds of 30,000 km/s, or 10% of the speed of light – and that’s how they get dispersed throughout the universe.

Supernova explosions don’t happen often – as a result, in every 1,000,000 grams of the Earth’s crust, there are only 1.25 grams of tungsten.

An Unusual History

In the periodic table, tungsten is listed under the letter “W”. That’s because two names for the same metal actually arose simultaneously.

“Wolfram”

WOLFRAM: derived from the German words WOLF (English: wolf) and the Middle High German word RAM (English: dirt).

In the Middle Ages, tin miners in Germany complained about a mineral (wolframite) that accompanied tin ore and reduced tin yields when smelting.

With a longish, hair-like appearance, wolframite was thought to be a “wolf” that ate up the tin. Wolframite had plagued metallurgists for many centuries, until tungsten was discovered and proper methods were developed to deal with the heavy metal.

“Tungsten”

TUNGSTEN: derived from the Swedish words TUNG (English: heavy) and STEN (English: stone) due to its density

Scheelite, the other important tungsten ore, was discovered in an iron mine in Sweden in 1750.

It garnered interest for its incredible density – which is why it was named “heavy stone”.

The Discovery

The metal was discovered by Spanish nobleman Juan José D´Elhuyar, who eventually synthesized tungsten from both wolframite and scheelite – showing they were both minerals from the same new element.

History of Tungsten Uses

Discoveries in tungsten use can be loosely linked to four fields: chemicals, steel and super alloys, filaments, and carbides.

1847: Tungsten salts are used to make colored cotton and to make clothes used for theatrical and other purposes fireproof.

1855: The Bessemer process is invented, allowing for the mass production of steel. At the same time, the first tungsten steels are being made in Austria.

1895: Thomas Edison investigated materials’ ability to fluoresce when exposed to X-rays, and found that calcium tungstate was the most effective substance.

1900: High Speed Steel, a special mix of steel and tungsten, is exhibited at the World Exhibition in Paris. It maintains its hardness at high temperatures, perfect for use in tools and machining.

1903: Filaments in lamps and lightbulbs were the first use of tungsten that made use of its extremely high melting point and its electrical conductivity. The only problem? Early attempts found tungsten to be too brittle for widespread use.

1909: William Coolidge and his team at General Electric the U.S. are successful in discovering a process that creates ductile tungsten filaments through suitable heat treatment and mechanical working.

1911: The Coolidge Process is commercialized, and in a short time tungsten light bulbs spread all over the world equipped with ductile tungsten wires.

1913: A shortage in industrial diamonds in Germany during WWII leads researchers to look for an alternative to diamond dies, which are used to draw wire.

1914: “It was the belief of some Allied military experts that in six months Germany would be exhausted of ammunition. The Allies soon discovered that Germany was increasing her manufacture of munitions and for a time had exceeded the output of the Allies. The change was in part due to her use of tungsten high-speed steel and tungsten cutting tools. To the bitter amazement of the British, the tungsten so used, it was later discovered, came largely from their Cornish Mines in Cornwall.” – From K.C. Li’s 1947 book “TUNGSTEN”

1923: A German electrical bulb company submits a patent for tungsten carbide, or hardmetal. It’s made by “cementing” very hard tungsten monocarbide (WC) grains in a binder matrix of tough cobalt metal by liquid phase sintering.

The result changed the history of tungsten: a material which combines high strength, toughness and high hardness. In fact, tungsten carbide is so hard, the only natural material that can scratch it is a diamond. (Carbide is the most important use for tungsten today.)

1930s: New applications arose for tungsten compounds in the oil industry for the hydrotreating of crude oils.

1940: The development of iron, nickel, and cobalt-based superalloys begin, to fill the need for a material that can withstand the incredible temperatures of jet engines.

1942: During World War II, the Germans were the first to use tungsten carbide core in high velocity armor piercing projectiles. British tanks virtually “melted” when hit by these tungsten carbide projectiles.

1945: Annual sales of incandescent lamps are 795 million per year in the U.S.

1950s: By this time, tungsten is being added into superalloys to improve their performance.

1960s: New catalysts were born containing tungsten compounds to treat exhaust gases in the oil industry.

1964: Improvements in efficiency and production of incandescent lamps reduce the cost of providing a given quantity of light by a factor of thirty, compared with the cost at introduction of Edison’s lighting system.

2000: At this point, about 20 billion meters of lamp wire are drawn each year, a length which corresponds to about 50 times the earth-moon distance. Lighting consumes 4% and 5% of the total tungsten production.

Tungsten Today

Today, tungsten carbide is extremely widespread, and its applications include metal cutting, machining of wood, plastics, composites, and soft ceramics, chipless forming (hot and cold), mining, construction, rock drilling, structural parts, wear parts and military components.

Tungsten steel alloys are also used the in the production of rocket engine nozzles, which must have good heat resistant properties. Super-alloys containing tungsten are used in turbine blades and wear-resistant parts and coatings.

However, at the same time, the reign of the incandescent lightbulb has come to an end after 132 years, as they start to get phased out in the U.S. and Canada.

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Mining

How to Avoid Common Mistakes With Mining Stocks (Part 4: Project Quality)

Mining is a technical field that manages complex factors from geology to engineering. These details can make or break a project.

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Quality Mining Projects

Mining is a technical field and requires a comprehension of many complex factors.

This includes everything from the characteristics of an orebody to the actual extraction method envisioned and used—and the devil is often found in these technical details.

Part 4: Evaluating Technical Risks and Project Quality

We’ve partnered with Eclipse Gold Mining on an infographic series to show you how to avoid common mistakes when evaluating and investing in mining exploration stocks.

Here is a basic introduction to some technical and project quality characteristics to consider when looking at your next mining investment.

Mining Project Quality

View the three other parts of this series so far:

Part 4: Technical Risks and Project Quality

So what must investors evaluate when it comes to technical risks and project quality?

Let’s take a look at four different factors.

1. Grade: Reliable Hen Vs. Golden Goose

Once mining starts, studies have to be adapted to reality. A mine needs to have the flexibility and robustness to adjust pre-mine plans to the reality of execution.

A “Golden Goose” will just blunder ahead and result in failure after failure due to lack of flexibility and hoping it will one day produce a golden egg.

Many mining projects can come into operation quickly based on complex and detailed studies of a mineral deposit. However, it requires actual mining to prove these studies.

Some mining projects fail to achieve nameplate tonnes and grade once production begins. However, a team response to varying grades and conditions can still make a mine into a profitable mine or a “Reliable Hen.”

2. Money: Piggy Bank vs. Money Pit

The degree of insight into a mineral deposit and the appropriate density of data to support the understanding is what leads to a piggy bank or money pit.

Making a project decision on poor understanding of the geology and limited information leads to the money pit of just making things work.

Just like compound interest, success across many technical aspects increases revenue exponentially, but it can easily go the other way if not enough data is used to make a decision to put a project into production.

3. Environment: Responsible vs. Reckless

Not all projects are situated in an ideal landscape for mining. There are environmental and social factors to consider. A mining company that takes into account these facts has a higher chance of going into production.

Mineral deposits do not occur in convenient locations and require the disruption of the natural environment. Understanding how a mining project will impact its surroundings goes a long way to see whether the project is viable.

4. Team: Orchestra vs. One-Man Band

Mining is a complex and technical industry that relies on many skilled professionals with clear leadership, not just one person doing all the work.

Geologists, accountants, laborers, engineers, and investor relations officers are just some of the roles that a CEO or management team needs to deliver a profitable mine. A good leader will be the conductor of the varying technical teams allowing each to play their best at the right time.

Mining 101: Mining Valuation and Methods

In order to further consider a mining project’s quality, it is important to understand how the company is valued and how it plans to mine a mineral resource.

Valuation

There are two ways to look at the value of a mining project:

  1. The Discounted Cash Flow method estimates the present value of the cash that will come from a mining project over its life.
  2. In-situ Resource Value is a metric that values all the metal in the ground to give an estimate of the dollar value of those resources.

Mining Method

The location of the ore deposit and the quantity of its grade will determine what mining method a company will choose to extract the valuable ore.

  1. Open-pit mining removes valuable ore that is relatively near the surface of the Earth’s crust using power trucks and shovels to move large volumes of rock. Typically, it is a lower cost mining method, meaning lower grades of ore are economic to mine.
  2. Underground mining occurs when the ore body is too deep to mine profitably by open-pit. In other words, the quality of the orebody is high enough to cover the costs of complex engineering underneath the Earth’s crust.

When Technicals and Quality Align

This is a brief overview of where to begin a technical look at a mining project, but typically helps to form some questions for the average investor to consider.

Everything from the characteristics of an orebody to the actual extraction method will determine whether a project can deliver a healthy return to the investor.

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Gold

Comparing Recent U.S. Presidents: New Debt Added vs. Precious Metals Production

While gold and silver coin production during U.S. presidencies has declined, public debt continues to climb to historically high levels.

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Gold and Silver Coin Production During U.S. Presidencies

Recent U.S. Presidents: Debt vs. Coins Added

While precious metals can’t be produced out of thin air, U.S. debt can be financed through central bank money creation. In fact, U.S. debt has skyrocketed in recent years under both Democrat and Republican administrations.

This infographic from Texas Precious Metals compares the increase in public debt to the value of gold and silver coin production during U.S. presidencies.

Total Production by Presidential Term

We used U.S. public debt in our calculations, a measure of debt owed to third parties such as foreign governments, corporations, and individuals, while excluding intragovernmental holdings. To derive the value of U.S. minted gold and silver coins, we multiplied new ounces produced by the average closing price of gold or silver in each respective year.

Here’s how debt growth stacks up against gold and silver coin production during recent U.S. presidencies:

 Obama's 1st term (2009-2012)Obama's Second Term (2013-2016)Trump's term (2017-Oct 26 2020)
U.S. Silver Coins Minted$3.7B$3.3B$1.4B
U.S. Gold Coins Minted$6.7B$5.1B$2.9B
U.S. Public Debt Added$5.2T$2.9T$6.6T

Over each consecutive term, gold and silver coin production decreased. In Trump’s term so far, the value of public debt added to the system is almost 1,600 times higher than minted gold and silver coins combined.

During Obama’s first term and Trump’s term, debt saw a marked increase as the administrations provided fiscal stimulus in response to the global financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. As we begin to recover from COVID-19, what might debt growth look like going forward?

U.S. Public Debt Projections

As of September 30, 2020, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year, debt had reached $21 trillion. According to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, it’s projected to rise steadily in the future.

 2021P2022P2023P2024P2025P2026P2027P2028P2029P2030P
U.S. Public Debt21.9T23.3T24.5T25.7T26.8T27.9T29.0T30.4T31.8T33.5T
Debt-to-GDP ratio104.4%105.6%106.7%107.1%107.2%106.7%106.3%106.8%107.4%108.9%

By 2030, debt will have risen by over $12 trillion from 2020 levels and the debt-to-GDP ratio will be almost 109%.

It’s worth noting that debt will likely grow substantially regardless of who is elected in the 2020 U.S. election. Central estimates by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget show debt rising by $5 trillion under Trump and $5.6 trillion under Biden through 2030. These estimates exclude any COVID-19 relief policies.

What Could This Mean for Investors?

As the U.S. Federal Reserve creates more money to finance rising government debt, inflation could eventually be pushed higher. This could affect the value of the U.S. dollar.

On the flip side, gold and silver have a limited supply and coin production has decreased over the last three presidential terms. Both can act as an inflation hedge, while playing a role in wealth preservation.

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