Infographic: The History of Tungsten, the Strongest Natural Metal on Earth
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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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Energy

The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns (2012-2021)

Energy fuels led the way as commodity prices surged in 2021, with only precious metals providing negative returns.

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commodity returns 2021 preview

The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns (2022 Edition)

For investors, 2021 was a year in which nearly every asset class finished in the green, with commodities providing some of the best returns.

The S&P Goldman Sachs Commodity Index (GSCI) was the third best-performing asset class in 2021, returning 37.1% and beating out real estate and all major equity indices.

This graphic from U.S. Global Investors tracks individual commodity returns over the past decade, ranking them based on their individual performance each year.

Commodity Prices Surge in 2021

After a strong performance from commodities (metals especially) in the year prior, 2021 was all about energy commodities.

The top three performers for 2021 were energy fuels, with coal providing the single best annual return of any commodity over the past 10 years at 160.6%. According to U.S. Global Investors, coal was also the least volatile commodity of 2021, meaning investors had a smooth ride as the fossil fuel surged in price.

Commodity2021 Returns
Coal160.61%
Crude Oil55.01%
Gas46.91%
Aluminum42.18%
Zinc31.53%
Nickel26.14%
Copper25.70%
Corn22.57%
Wheat20.34%
Lead18.32%
Gold-3.64%
Platinum-9.64%
Silver-11.72%
Palladium-22.21%

Source: U.S. Global Investors

The only commodities in the red this year were precious metals, which failed to stay positive despite rising inflation across goods and asset prices. Gold and silver had returns of -3.6% and -11.7% respectively, with platinum returning -9.6% and palladium, the worst performing commodity of 2021, at -22.2%.

Aside from the precious metals, every other commodity managed double-digit positive returns, with four commodities (crude oil, coal, aluminum, and wheat) having their best single-year performances of the past decade.

Energy Commodities Outperform as the World Reopens

The partial resumption of travel and the reopening of businesses in 2021 were both powerful catalysts that fueled the price rise of energy commodities.

After crude oil’s dip into negative prices in April 2020, black gold had a strong comeback in 2021 as it returned 55.01% while being the most volatile commodity of the year.

Natural gas prices also rose significantly (46.91%), with the UK and Europe’s natural gas prices rising even more as supply constraints came up against the winter demand surge.

Energy commodity returns 2021

Despite being the second worst performer of 2020 with the clean energy transition on the horizon, coal was 2021’s best commodity.

High electricity demand saw coal return in style, especially in China which accounts for one-third of global coal consumption.

Base Metals Beat out Precious Metals

2021 was a tale of two metals, as precious metals and base metals had opposing returns.

Copper, nickel, zinc, aluminum, and lead, all essential for the clean energy transition, kept up last year’s positive returns as the EV batteries and renewable energy technologies caught investors’ attention.

Demand for these energy metals looks set to continue in 2022, with Tesla having already signed a $1.5 billion deal for 75,000 tonnes of nickel with Talon Metals.

Metals price performance 2021

On the other end of the spectrum, precious metals simply sunk like a rock last year.

Investors turned to equities, real estate, and even cryptocurrencies to preserve and grow their investments, rather than the traditionally favorable gold (-3.64%) and silver (-11.72%). Platinum and palladium also lagged behind other commodities, only returning -9.64% and -22.21% respectively.

Grains Bring Steady Gains

In a year of over and underperformers, grains kept up their steady track record and notched their fifth year in a row of positive returns.

Both corn and wheat provided double-digit returns, with corn reaching eight-year highs and wheat reaching prices not seen in over nine years. Overall, these two grains followed 2021’s trend of increasing food prices, as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s food price index reached a 10-year high, rising by 17.8% over the course of the year.

Grains price performance 2021

As inflation across commodities, assets, and consumer goods surged in 2021, investors will now be keeping a sharp eye for a pullback in 2022. We’ll have to wait and see whether or not the Fed’s plans to increase rates and taper asset purchases will manage to provide price stability in commodities.

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Mining

Visualizing the Scale and Composition of the Earth’s Crust

This animation shows the handful of minerals and elements that constitute the Earth’s crust.

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Visualizing the Scale and Composition of the Earth’s Crust

For as long as humans have been wandering the top of Earth’s crust, we’ve been fascinated with what’s inside.

And Earth’s composition has been vital for our advancement. From finding the right kinds of rocks to make tools, all the way to making efficient batteries and circuit boards, we rely on minerals in Earth’s crust to fuel innovation and technology.

This animation by Dr. James O’Donoghue, a planetary researcher at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NASA, is a visual comparison of Earth’s outer layers and their major constituents by mass.

What is the Composition of Earth’s Crust?

The combined mass of Earth’s surface water and crust, the stiff outermost layer of our planet, is less than half a percent of the total mass of the Earth.

There are over 90 elements found in Earth’s crust. But only a small handful make up the majority of rocks, minerals, soil, and water we interact with daily.

1. Silicon

Most abundant in the crust is silicon dioxide (SiO2), found in pure form as the mineral quartz. We use quartz in the manufacturing of glass, electronics, and abrasives.

Why is silicon dioxide so abundant? It can easily combine with other elements to form “silicates,” a group of minerals that make up over 90% of Earth’s crust.

Clay is one of the better-known silicates and micas are silicate minerals used in paints and cosmetics to make them sparkle and shimmer.

MineralMajor ElementsPercentage of Crust
Plagioclase FeldsparO, Si, Al, Ca, Na39%
Alkali FeldsparO, Si, Al, Na, K12%
QuartzO, Si12%
PyroxeneO, Si, Mg, Fe11%
AmphiboleO, Si, Mg, Fe5%
Non-silicatesVariable8%
MicasO, Si, Al, Mg, Fe, Ca, Na, K5%
Clay MineralsO, Si, Al, Mg, Fe, Ca, Na, K5%
Other SilicatesO, Si3%

2. Aluminum and Calcium

SiO2 bonds very easily with aluminum and calcium, our next most abundant constituents. Together with some sodium and potassium, they form feldspar, a mineral that makes up 41% of rocks on Earth’s surface.

While you may not have heard of feldspar, you use it every day; it’s an important ingredient in ceramics and it lowers the melting point of glass, making it cheaper and easier to produce screens, windows, and drinking glasses.

3. Iron and Magnesium

Iron and magnesium each make up just under 5% of the crust’s mass, but they combine with SiO2 and other elements to form pyroxenes and amphiboles. These two important mineral groups constitute around 16% of crustal rocks.

Maybe the best known of these minerals are the two varieties of jade, jadeite (pyroxene) and nephrite (amphibole). Jade minerals have been prized for their beauty for centuries, and are commonly used in counter-tops, construction, and landscaping.

Some asbestos minerals, now largely banned for their cancer-causing properties, belong to the amphibole mineral group. They were once in high demand for their insulating and fire-retardant properties and were even used in brake pads, cigarette filters, and as artificial snow.

4. Water

Surprisingly, even though it covers almost three quarters of Earth’s surface, water (H2O) makes up less than 5% of the crust’s mass. This is partly because water is significantly less dense than other crustal constituents, meaning it has less mass per volume.

Breaking Earth’s Crust Down by Element

Though there are many different components that form the Earth’s crust, all of the above notably include oxygen.

When breaking down the crust by element, oxygen is indeed the most abundant element at just under half the mass of Earth’s crust. It is followed by silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium, and sodium.

All other remaining elements make up just over 5% of the crust’s mass. But that small section includes all the metals and rare earth elements that we use in construction and technology, which is why discovering and economically extracting them is so crucial.

What Lies Below?

As the crust is only the outermost layer of Earth, there are other layers left to contemplate and discover. While we have never directly interacted with the Earth’s mantle or core, we do know quite a bit about their structure and composition thanks to seismic tomography.

The Upper Mantle

At a few specific spots on Earth, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes have been strong enough to expose pieces of the upper mantle, which are also made of mostly silicates.

The mineral olivine makes up about 55% of the upper mantle composition and causes its greenish color. Pyroxene comes in second at 35%, and calcium-rich feldspar and other calcium and aluminum silicates make up between 5–10%.

Going Even Deeper

Beyond the upper mantle, Earth’s composition is not as well known.

Deep-mantle minerals have only been found on Earth’s surface as components of extra-terrestrial meteorites and as part of diamonds brought up from the deep mantle.

One thing the lower mantle is thought to contain is the silicate mineral bridgmanite, at an abundance of up to 75%. Earth’s core, meanwhile, is believed to be made up of iron and nickel with small amounts of oxygen, silicon, and sulphur.

As technology improves, we will be able to discover more about the mineral and elemental makeup of the Earth and have an even better understanding of the place we all call home.

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