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: 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.
Charted: 30 Years of Central Bank Gold Demand
Globally, central banks bought a record 1,136 tonnes of gold in 2022. How has central bank gold demand changed over the last three decades?
30 Years of Central Bank Gold Demand
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Did you know that nearly one-fifth of all the gold ever mined is held by central banks?
Besides investors and jewelry consumers, central banks are a major source of gold demand. In fact, in 2022, central banks snapped up gold at the fastest pace since 1967.
However, the record gold purchases of 2022 are in stark contrast to the 1990s and early 2000s, when central banks were net sellers of gold.
The above infographic uses data from the World Gold Council to show 30 years of central bank gold demand, highlighting how official attitudes toward gold have changed in the last 30 years.
Why Do Central Banks Buy Gold?
Gold plays an important role in the financial reserves of numerous nations. Here are three of the reasons why central banks hold gold:
- Balancing foreign exchange reserves
Central banks have long held gold as part of their reserves to manage risk from currency holdings and to promote stability during economic turmoil.
- Hedging against fiat currencies
Gold offers a hedge against the eroding purchasing power of currencies (mainly the U.S. dollar) due to inflation.
- Diversifying portfolios
Gold has an inverse correlation with the U.S. dollar. When the dollar falls in value, gold prices tend to rise, protecting central banks from volatility.
The Switch from Selling to Buying
In the 1990s and early 2000s, central banks were net sellers of gold.
There were several reasons behind the selling, including good macroeconomic conditions and a downward trend in gold prices. Due to strong economic growth, gold’s safe-haven properties were less valuable, and low returns made it unattractive as an investment.
Central bank attitudes toward gold started changing following the 1997 Asian financial crisis and then later, the 2007–08 financial crisis. Since 2010, central banks have been net buyers of gold on an annual basis.
Here’s a look at the 10 largest official buyers of gold from the end of 1999 to end of 2021:
|Rank||Country||Amount of |
Gold Bought (tonnes)
|#7||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||180||3%|
The top 10 official buyers of gold between end-1999 and end-2021 represent 84% of all the gold bought by central banks during this period.
Russia and China—arguably the United States’ top geopolitical rivals—have been the largest gold buyers over the last two decades. Russia, in particular, accelerated its gold purchases after being hit by Western sanctions following its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Interestingly, the majority of nations on the above list are emerging economies. These countries have likely been stockpiling gold to hedge against financial and geopolitical risks affecting currencies, primarily the U.S. dollar.
Meanwhile, European nations including Switzerland, France, Netherlands, and the UK were the largest sellers of gold between 1999 and 2021, under the Central Bank Gold Agreement (CBGA) framework.
Which Central Banks Bought Gold in 2022?
In 2022, central banks bought a record 1,136 tonnes of gold, worth around $70 billion.
|Country||2022 Gold Purchases (tonnes)||% of Total|
Türkiye, experiencing 86% year-over-year inflation as of October 2022, was the largest buyer, adding 148 tonnes to its reserves. China continued its gold-buying spree with 62 tonnes added in the months of November and December, amid rising geopolitical tensions with the United States.
Overall, emerging markets continued the trend that started in the 2000s, accounting for the bulk of gold purchases. Meanwhile, a significant two-thirds, or 741 tonnes of official gold purchases were unreported in 2022.
According to analysts, unreported gold purchases are likely to have come from countries like China and Russia, who are looking to de-dollarize global trade to circumvent Western sanctions.
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