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: 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: 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 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.
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.
20 Common Metal Alloys and What They’re Made Of
You can’t find stainless steel, brass, sterling silver, or white gold on the periodic table. Learn about 20 common metal alloys, and what they are made from.
Every day, you’re likely to encounter metals that cannot be found anywhere on the periodic table.
You may play a brass instrument while wearing a white gold necklace – or maybe you cook with a cast iron skillet and store your leftovers in a stainless steel refrigerator.
It’s likely that you know these common metal alloys by name, and you can probably even imagine what they look and feel like. But do you know what base metals these alloys are made of, exactly?
Common Metal Alloys
Today’s infographic comes to us from Alan’s Factory Outlet, and it breaks down metal and non-metal components that go into popular metal alloys.
In total, 20 alloys are highlighted, and they range from household names (i.e. bronze, sterling silver) to lesser-known metals that are crucial for industrial purposes (i.e. solder, gunmetal, magnox).
Humans make metal alloys for various reasons.
Some alloys have long-standing historical significance. For example, electrum is a naturally-occurring alloy of gold and silver (with trace amounts of copper) that was used to make the very first metal coins in ancient history.
However, most of the common metal alloys on the above list are actually human inventions that are used to achieve practical purposes. Some were innovated by brilliant metallurgists, while others were discovered by fluke, but they’ve all had an ongoing impact on our species over time.
Alloys with an Impact
The Bronze Age (3,000 BC – 1,200 BC) is an important historical period that is rightfully named after one game-changing development: the ability to use bronze. This alloy, made from copper and tin, was extremely useful to our ancestors because it is much stronger and harder than its component metals.
Steel is another great example of an alloy that has changed the world. It is one of the most important and widely-used metals today. Without steel, modern civilization (skyscrapers, bridges, etc.) simply wouldn’t be possible.
While nobody knows exactly who invented steel, the alloy has a widely-known cousin that was likely invented in somewhat accidental circumstances.
In 1912, English metallurgist Harry Brearley had been tasked with finding a more erosion-resistant steel for a small arms manufacturer, trying many variations of alloys with none seeming to be suitable. However, in his scrap metal heap – where almost all of the metals he tried were rusting – there was one gun barrel that remained astonishingly untouched.
The metal alloy – now known to the world as stainless steel – was a step forward in creating a corrosion-resistant steel that is now used in many applications ranging from medical uses to heavy industry.
How AI and Big Data Will Unlock the Next Wave of Mineral Discoveries
Mineral exploration produces massive amounts of data. With AI, geologists can produce geological insights from this data to make the next discovery.
How AI and Big Data Will Unlock the Next Mineral Discovery
Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are rapidly proving their value across many industries.
Today’s infographic comes from GoldSpot Discoveries, and it shows that when this tech is applied to massive geological data sets, that there is growing potential to unlock the next wave of mineral discoveries.
Mineral Exploration: Fortunes Go to the Few
Discovering new sources of minerals, such as copper, gold, or even cobalt, can be notoriously difficult but also very rewarding. According to Goldspot, the chance of finding a new deposit is around 0.5%, with odds improving to 5% if exploration takes place near a known resource.
On the whole, mineral exploration has not been a winning prospect if you compare the total dollar spend and the actual value of the resulting discoveries.
Measuring Discovery Performance by Region (2005 to 2014)
|Region||Exploration Spend||Estimated Value of Discoveries||Value/Spend ratio|
|Australia||$13 billion||$13 billion||0.97|
|Canada||$25 billion||$19 billion||0.77|
|USA||$10 billion||$5 billion||0.48|
|Latin America||$33 billion||$19 billion||0.57|
|Pacific/SE Asia||$8 billion||$4 billion||0.49|
|Africa||$20 billion||$23 billion||1.19|
|Western Europe||$4 billion||$2 billion||0.42|
|Rest of World||$27 billion||$8 billion||0.32|
|Total||$140 billion||$93 billion||0.57|
Figures in 2014 dollars. (Source: MinEx Consulting, March 2015)
Aside from the geographic insights, on the surface this data reveals that mineral exploration does not pay for itself. That said, there are still significant discoveries worth billions of dollars – it’s just the returns go inordinately to a few small players that make big finds.
Much of the money spent on exploration may not have produced the next great discovery, but you can be sure it created massive volumes of data that could be used for further refining of exploration models.
So, What is the Problem?
Every exploration failure or success produces geological insights. The mineral exploration process is the source of massive amounts of data in the form of soil samples, chip samples, geochemistry, drill results, and assay results. Each drill hole is a tiny snapshot into the processes that form the earth.
A single drill hole can create 200 megabytes of data and when there are many drill holes coupled with other types of information, an exploration project can produce terabytes of data. If you wanted to compare your one project to hundreds of others to find the best insights, the amount of data becomes dizzying.
All these data points are clues that can be used to find new mineral deposits, but to sort through them is too much for even an entire team of capable geologists.
Luckily, using today’s technology, this data can now be used to train computers to spot the areas showing similar patterns to past discoveries.
The true power of AI will be in its ability to empower technically trained professionals to make decisions in an increasingly complex and data-driven world.
Professor Ajay Agrawal, a noted academic in AI and founder of the University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab, categorizes human activities into five categories:
- Data collection
- Information retrieval
He concludes that machines should do the first three and that humans – such as geologists, doctors, lawyers, investment bankers and others – should make the judgment calls and take the actions based on predictive capabilities of AI.
The mineral exploration industry presents a good example of how AI and big data can help technical professionals make discoveries faster, with less money, using a wide variety of data inputs created.
Opportunity Generator and the AI-friendly Future
AI can take the large amounts of data from many different projects in order to spot the right opportunities to further explore, building on decades of geological data from projects around the world.
The right technology can help reduce the risk inherent in exploration and lead to more mineral discoveries on budget, rewarding those that deployed their data most effectively. Companies that are able to harness this power will tip the scales in their favor.
As a result, mineral exploration is no longer so much an art of interpretation – but instead, it becomes closer to a pure science, giving geologists a whole-field perspective of all the data.
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