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 Top 10 Biggest Companies in Brazil

What drives some of the world’s emerging economies? From natural resources to giant banks, here are the top 10 biggest companies in Brazil.

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The Top 10 Biggest Companies in Brazil Oct 10 Share

The Top 10 Biggest Companies in Brazil

In 2009, the at-the-time emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China held their first formal summits as members of BRIC (with South Africa joining in 2010).

Together, BRICS represents 26.7% of the world’s land surface and 41.5% of its population. By GDP ranking, they’re also some of the most powerful economies in the world.

But what drives their economies? We’re highlighting the top 10 biggest companies in each country, starting with Brazil.

What Are the Biggest Public Companies in Brazil?

Brazil isn’t just one of the largest and most diverse countries in the world, it is also an economic powerhouse.

With over 213 million people, Brazil is the sixth most populous country on Earth and the largest in Latin America. It’s also the wealthiest on the continent, with the world’s 12th-largest economy.

Once a colony focused on sugar and gold, Brazil rapidly industrialized in the 20th century. Today, it is a top 10 exporter of industrial steel, with the country’s economic strength coming chiefly from natural resources and financials.

Here are Brazil’s biggest public companies by market capitalization in October 2021:

Top 10 Companies (October 2021)CategoryMarket Cap (USD)
ValeMetals and Mining$73.03B
Petróleo BrasileiroOil and Gas$69.84B
AmbevDrinks$43.87B
Itaú UnibancoFinancial$41.65B
Banco BradescoFinancial$34.16B
WEGIndustrial Engineering$29.43B
BTG PactualFinancial$25.01B
Banco Santander BrasilFinancial$24.70B
Rede D’Or Sao LuizHospital$23.79B
XP Inc.Financial$22.45B

At the top of the ranking is Vale, a metals and mining giant that is the world’s largest producer of iron ore and nickel. Also the operator of infrastructure including hydroelectricity plants, railroads, and ports, It consistently ranks as the most valuable company in Latin America.

Vale and second-ranking company Petróleo Brasileiro, Brazil’s largest oil producer, were former state-owned corporations that became privatized in the 1990s.

Finance in Brazil’s Top 10 Biggest Companies

Other than former monopolies, the top 10 biggest companies in Brazil highlight the power of the banking sector.

Five of the 10 companies with a market cap above $20 billion are in the financial industry.

They include Itaú Unibanco, the largest bank in the Southern Hemisphere, and Banco Santander Brasil, the Brazilian subsidiary of Spanish finance corp.

Another well-known subsidiary is brewing company Ambev, which produces the majority of the country’s liquors and also bottles and distributes PepsiCo products in much of Latin America. Ambev is an important piece of Belgian drink juggernaut Anheuser-Busch InBev, which is one of the world’s largest 100 companies.

Noticeably missing from the top 10 list are companies in the agriculture sector, as Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of coffee, soybeans, beef, and ethanol. Many multinational corporations have Brazilian subsidiaries or partners for supply chain access, which has recently put a spotlight on Amazon deforestation.

What other companies or industries do you associate with Brazil?

Correction: Two companies listed had errors in their market cap calculations and have been updated. All data is as of October 11, 2021.

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All the Metals We Mined in One Visualization

From iron ore to rare earths, over 3 billion tonnes of metals are mined each year. This chart shows them all on a relative scale.

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All the Metals We Mined in One Visualization

This was originally posted on Elements. Sign up to the free mailing list to get beautiful visualizations on natural resource megatrends in your email every week.

Metals are all around us, from our phones and cars to our homes and office buildings.

While we often overlook the presence of these raw materials, they are an essential part of the modern economy. But obtaining these materials can be a complex process that involves mining, refining, and then converting them into usable forms.

So, how much metal gets mined in a year?

Metals vs Ores

Before digging into the numbers, it’s important that we distinguish between ores and metals.

Ores are naturally occurring rocks that contain metals and metal compounds. Metals are the valuable parts of ores that can be extracted by separating and removing the waste rock. As a result, ore production is typically much higher than the actual metal content of the ore. For example, miners produced 347 million tonnes of bauxite ore in 2019, but the actual aluminum metal content extracted from that was only 62.9 million tonnes.

Here are all the metals and metal ores mined in 2019, according to the British Geological Survey:

Metal/OreQuantity Mined (tonnes)% of Total
Iron Ore3,040,000,00093.57%
Industrial Metals207,478,4866.39%
Technology and Precious Metals1,335,8480.04%
Total3,248,814,334100%

Miners produced roughly three billion tonnes of iron ore in 2019, representing close to 94% of all mined metals. The primary use of all this iron is to make steel. In fact, 98% of iron ore goes into steelmaking, with the rest fulfilling various other applications.

Industrial and technology metals made up the other 6% of all mined metals in 2019. How do they break down?

Industrial Metals

From construction and agriculture to manufacturing and transportation, virtually every industry harnesses the properties of metals in different ways.

Here are the industrial metals we mined in 2019.

MetalQuantity Mined (tonnes)% of Total
Aluminum62,900,00030%
Manganese Ore56,600,00027%
Chromium Ores and Concentrates38,600,00019%
Copper20,700,00010%
Zinc12,300,0006%
Titanium (Titanium Dioxide Content)6,300,0003%
Lead4,700,0002%
Nickel2,702,0001%
Zirconium Minerals (Zircon)1,337,0001%
Magnesium1,059,7361%
Strontium220,0000.11%
Uranium53,4000.03%
Bismuth3,7000.002%
Mercury2,4000.001%
Beryllium2500.0001%
Total207,478,486100%

Percentages may not add up to 100 due to rounding.

It’s no surprise that aluminum is the most-produced industrial metal. The lightweight metal is one of the most commonly used materials in the world, with uses ranging from making foils and beer kegs to buildings and aircraft parts.

Manganese and chromium rank second and third respectively in terms of metal mined, and are important ingredients in steelmaking. Manganese helps convert iron ore into steel, and chromium hardens and toughens steel. Furthermore, manganese is a critical ingredient of lithium-manganese-cobalt-oxide (NMC) batteries for electric vehicles.

Although copper production is around one-third that of aluminum, copper has a key role in making modern life possible. The red metal is found in virtually every wire, motor, and electrical appliance in our homes and offices. It’s also critical for various renewable energy technologies and electric vehicles.

Technology and Precious Metals

Technology is only as good as the materials that make it.

Technology metals can be classified as relatively rare metals commonly used in technology and devices. While miners produce some tech and precious metals in large quantities, others are relatively scarce.

MetalQuantity Mined in 2019 (tonnes)% of Total
Tin305,00023%
Molybdenum275,00021%
Rare Earth Elements220,00016%
Cobalt123,0009%
Lithium97,5007%
Tungsten91,5007%
Vanadium81,0006%
Niobium57,0004%
Cadmium27,5002%
Tantalum27,0002%
Silver26,2612%
Gold3,3500.3%
Indium8510.06%
Platinum Group Metals4570.03%
Gallium3800.03%
Rhenium490.004%
Total1,335,848100.00%

Percentages may not add up to 100 due to rounding.

Tin was the most-mined tech metal in 2019, and according to the International Tin Association, nearly half of it went into soldering.

It’s also interesting to see the prevalence of battery and energy metals. Lithium, cobalt, vanadium, and molybdenum are all critical for various energy technologies, including lithium-ion batteries, wind farms, and energy storage technologies. Additionally, miners also extracted 220,000 tonnes of rare earth elements, of which 60% came from China.

Given their rarity, it’s not surprising that gold, silver, and platinum group metals (PGMs) were the least-mined materials in this category. Collectively, these metals represent just 2.3% of the tech and precious metals mined in 2019.

A Material World

Although humans mine and use massive quantities of metals every year, it’s important to put these figures into perspective.

According to Circle Economy, the world consumes 100.6 billion tonnes of materials annually. Of this total, 3.2 billion tonnes of metals produced in 2019 would account for just 3% of our overall material consumption. In fact, the world’s annual production of cement alone is around 4.1 billion tonnes, dwarfing total metal production.

The world’s appetite for materials is growing with its population. As resource-intensive megatrends such as urbanization and electrification pick up the pace, our material pie will only get larger.

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