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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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Base Metals

All the World’s Metals and Minerals in One Visualization

This massive infographic reveals the dramatic scale of 2019 non-fuel mineral global production.

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All the World’s Metals and Minerals in One Visualization

We live in a material world, in that we rely on materials to make our lives better. Without even realizing it, humans consume enormous amounts of metals and minerals with every convenient food package, impressive building, and technological innovation.

Every year, the United States Geological Service (USGS) publishes commodity summaries outlining global mining statistics for over 90 individual minerals and materials. Today’s infographic visualizes the data to reveal the dramatic scale of 2019 non-fuel mineral production.

Read all the way to the bottom; the data will surprise you.

Non-Fuel Minerals: USGS Methodology

A wide variety of minerals can be classified as “non-fuel”, including precious metals, base metals, industrial minerals, and materials used for construction.

Non-fuel minerals are those not used for fuel, such as oil, natural gas and coal. Once non-fuel minerals are used up, there is no replacing them. However, many can be recycled continuously.

The USGS tracked both refinery and mine production of these various minerals. This means that some minerals are the essential ingredients for others on the list. For example, iron ore is critical for steel production, and bauxite ore gets refined into aluminum.

Top 10 Minerals and Metals by Production

Sand and gravel are at the top of the list of non-fuel mineral production.

As these materials are the basic components for the manufacturing of concrete, roads, and buildings, it’s not surprising they take the lead.

RankMetal/Mineral2019 Production (millions of metric tons)
#1Sand and Gravel50,000
#2Cement4,100
#3Iron and Steel3,200
#4Iron Ore2,500
#5Bauxite500
#6Lime430
#7Salt293
#8Phosphate Rock240
#9Nitrogen150
#10Gypsum140

These materials fertilize the food we eat, and they also form the structures we live in and the roads we drive on. They are the bones of the global economy.

Let’s dive into some more specific categories covered on the infographic.

Base Metals

While cement, sand, and gravel may be the bones of global infrastructure, base metals are its lifeblood. Their consumption is an important indicator of the overall health of an economy.

Base metals are non-ferrous, meaning they contain no iron. They are often more abundant in nature and sometimes easier to mine, so their prices are generally lower than precious metals.

RankBase Metal2019 Production (millions of metric tons)
#1Aluminum64.0
#2Copper20.0
#3Zinc13.0
#4Lead4.5
#5Nickel2.7
#6Tin0.3

Base metals are also the critical materials that will help to deliver a green and renewable future. The electrification of everything will require vast amounts of base metals to make everything from batteries to solar cells work.

Precious Metals

Gold and precious metals grab the headlines because of their rarity ⁠— and their production shows just how rare they are.

RankPrecious Metal2019 Production (metric tons)
#1Silver27,000
#2Gold3,300
#3Palladium210
#4Platinum180

While metals form the structure and veins of the global economy, ultimately it is humans and animals that make the flesh of the world, driving consumption patterns.

A Material World: A Perspective on Scale

The global economy’s appetite for materials has quadrupled since 1970, faster than the population, which only doubled. On average, each human uses more than 13 metric tons of materials per year.

In 2017, it’s estimated that humans consumed 100.6B metric tons of material in total. Half of the total comprises sand, clay, gravel, and cement used for building, along with the other minerals mined to produce fertilizer. Coal, oil, and gas make up 15% of the total, while metal makes up 10%. The final quarter are plants and trees used for food and fuel.

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Base Metals

Prove Your Metal: Top 10 Strongest Metals on Earth

There are 91 elements that are defined as metals but not all are the same. Here is a breakdown of the top 10 strongest metals and their applications.

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Prove Your Metal: Top 10 Strongest Metals on Earth

The use of metals and the advancement of human civilization have gone hand in hand — and throughout the ages, each metal has proved its worth based on its properties and applications.

Today’s visualization from Viking Steel Structures outlines the 10 strongest metals on Earth and their applications.

What are Metals?

Metals are solid materials that are typically hard, shiny, malleable, and ductile, with good electrical and thermal conductivity. But not all metal is equal, which makes their uses as varied as their individual properties and benefits.

The periodic table below presents a simple view of the relationship between metals, nonmetals, and metalloids, which you can easily identify by color.

The Periodic Table

While 91 of the 118 elements of the periodic table are considered to be metals, only a few of them stand out as the strongest.

What Makes a Metal Strong?

The strength of a metal depends on four properties:

  1. Tensile Strength: How well a metal resists being pulled apart
  2. Compressive Strength: How well a material resists being squashed together
  3. Yield Strength: How well a rod or beam of a particular metal resists bending and permanent damage
  4. Impact Strength: The ability to resist shattering upon impact with another object or surface

Here are the top 10 metals based on these properties.

The Top 10 Strongest Metals

RankType of MetalExample UseAtomic WeightMelting Point
#1TungstenMaking bullets and missiles183.84 u3422°C / 6192 °F
#2 SteelConstruction of railroads, roads, other infrastructure and appliancesn/a1371°C / 2500°F
#3ChromiumManufacturing stainless steel51.96 u1907°C / 3465°F,
#4TitaniumIn the aerospace Industry, as a lightweight material with strength47.87 u1668°C / 3032°F
#5IronUsed to make bridges, electricity, pylons, bicycle chains, cutting tools and rifle barrels55.85 u1536°C / 2800°F
#6Vanadium80% of vanadium is alloyed with iron to make steel shock and corrosion resistance50.942 u1910°C / 3470°F
#7LutetiumUsed as catalysts in petroleum production.174.96 u1663 °C / 3025°F
#8ZirconiumUsed in nuclear power stations.91.22 u1850°C / 3.362°F
#9OsmiumAdded to platinum or indium to make them harder.190.2 u3000°C / 5,400°F
#10TantalumUsed as an alloy due to its high melting point and anti-corrosion.180.94 u3,017°C / 5462°F

Out of the Forge and into Tech: Metals for the Future

While these metals help to forge the modern world, there is a new class of metals that are set to create a new future.

Rare Earth elements (REEs) are a group of metals do not rely on their strength, but instead their importance in applications in new technologies, including those used for green energy.

MetalUses
NeodymiumMagnets containing neodymium are used in green technologies such as the manufacture of wind turbines and hybrid cars.
LanthanumUsed in catalytic converters in cars, enabling them to run at high temperatures
CeriumThis element is used in camera and telescope lenses.
PraseodymiumUsed to create strong metals for use in aircraft engines.
GadoliniumUsed in X-ray and MRI scanning systems, and also in television screens.
Yttrium, terbium, europiumMaking televisions and computer screens and other devices that have visual displays.

If the world is going to move towards a more sustainable and efficient future, metals—both tough and smart—are going to be critical. Each one will serve a particular purpose to build the infrastructure and technology for the next generation.

Our ability to deploy technology with the right materials will test the world’s mettle to meet the challenges of tomorrow—so choose wisely.

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