Tantalum, previously known as tantalium, is a chemical element with the symbol Ta and atomic number 73. A rare, hard, blue-gray, lustrous transition metal, tantalum is highly corrosion resistant and occurs naturally in the mineral tantalite, always together with the chemically similar niobium. It is part of the refractory metals group, which are widely used as minor component in alloys. The chemical inertness of tantalum makes it a valuable substance for laboratory equipment and a substitute for platinum, but its main use today is in tantalum capacitors in electronic equipment.
Tantalum was discovered in Sweden in 1802 by Anders Ekeberg. One year earlier, Charles Hatchett had discovered the element columbium. In 1809, the English chemist William Hyde Wollaston compared the oxides derived from both columbium—columbite, with a density 5.918 g/cm3, and tantalum—tantalite, with a density 7.935 g/cm3, and concluded that the two oxides, despite their difference in measured density, were identical. He decided to keep the name tantalum. After Friedrich Wöhler confirmed these results, it was thought that columbium and tantalum were the same element. This conclusion was disputed in 1846 by the German chemist Heinrich Rose, who argued that there were two additional elements in the tantalite sample, and he named them after the children of Tantalus: niobium (from Niobe, the goddess of tears), and pelopium (from Pelops). The supposed element "pelopium" was later identified as a mixture of tantalum and niobium, and it was found that the niobium was identical to the columbium already discovered in 1801 by Hattchet.
The differences between tantalum and niobium were demonstrated unequivocally in 1864 by Christian Wilhelm Blomstrand, and Henri Etienne Sainte-Claire Deville, as well as by Louis J. Troost, who determined the empirical formulas of some of their compounds in 1865. Further confirmation came from the Swiss chemist Jean Charles Galissard de Marignac, in 1866, who all proved that there were only two elements. These discoveries did not stop scientists from publishing articles about the so-called ilmenium until 1871. De Marignac was the first to produce the metallic form of tantalum in 1864, when he reduced tantalum chloride by heating it in an atmosphere of hydrogen. Early investigators had been only able to produce impure tantalum, and the first relatively pure ductile metal was produced by Werner von Bolton in 1903. Wires made with metallic tantalum were used for light bulb filaments until tungsten replaced it in widespread use.
The name tantalum was derived from the name of the mythological Tantalus, the father of Niobe in Greek mythology. In the story, he had been punished after death by being condemned to stand knee-deep in water with perfect fruit growing above his head, both of which eternally tantalized him. (If he bent to drink the water, it drained below the level he could reach, and if he reached for the fruit, the branches moved out of his grasp.) Ekeberg wrote "This metal I call tantalum … partly in allusion to its incapacity, when immersed in acid, to absorb any and be saturated."
For decades, the commercial technology for separating tantalum from niobium involved the fractional crystallization of potassium heptafluorotantalate away from potassium oxypentafluoroniobate monohydrate, a process that was discovered by Jean Charles Galissard de Marignac in 1866. This method has been supplanted by solvent extraction from fluoride-containing solutions of tantalum.
The mining of coltan, a tantalum ore, in the violently conflicted regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has raised ethical questions and human rights problems, and the question of endangering wildlife.
Tantalum is dark, dense, ductile, very hard, easily fabricated, and highly conductive of heat and electricity. The metal is renowned for its resistance to corrosion by acids; in fact, at temperatures below 150 °C tantalum is almost completely immune to attack by the normally aggressive aqua regia. It can be dissolved with hydrofluoric acid or acidic solutions containing the fluoride ion and sulfur trioxide, as well as with a solution of potassium hydroxide. Tantalum's high melting point of 3017 °C (boiling point 5458 °C) is exceeded only by tungsten and rhenium for metals, and carbon.
It is able to form oxides with the oxidation states +5 (Ta2O5) and +4 (TaO2), The most stable oxidation state is +5, tantalum pentoxide. Tantalum pentoxide is the starting material for several tantalum compounds. The compounds are created by dissolving the pentoxide in basic hydroxide solutions or by melting it in another metal oxide. Such examples are lithium tantalate (LiTaO3) and lanthanum tantalate (LaTaO4). In the lithium tantalate, the tantalate ion TaO−3 does not occur; instead, this part of the formula represents linkage of TaO7−6 octahedra to form a three-dimensionalperovskite framework; while the lanthanum tantalate contains lone TaO3−4 tetrahedral groups.
The fluorides of tantalum can be used for its separation from niobium. Tantalum forms halogen compounds in the oxidation states of +5, +4, and +3 of the type TaX5, TaX4, and TaX3, although multi core complexes and substoichiometric compounds are also known. Tantalum pentafluoride (TaF5) is a white solid with a melting point of 97.0 °C and tantalum pentachloride (TaCl5) is a white solid with a melting point of 247.4 °C. Tantalum pentachloride is hydrolyzed by water and reacts with additional tantalum at elevated temperatures by forming the black and highly hygroscopic tantalum tetrachloride (TaCl4). While the trihalogen compounds can be obtained by reduction of the pentahalogenes with hydrogen, the dihalogen compounds do not exist. A tantalum-tellurium alloy forms quasicrystals. Tantalum compounds with oxidation states as low as -1 have been reported in 2008.
Like most of the other refractory metals, the hardest known compounds are the stable nitrides and carbides. Tantalum carbide, TaC, like the more commonly used tungsten carbide, is a very hard ceramic that is used in cutting tools. Tantalum (III) nitride is used as a thin film insulator in some microelectronic fabrication processes. Chemists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States have developed a tantalum carbide-graphite composite material that is one of the hardest materials ever synthesized. Korean researchers have developed an amorphous tantalum-tungsten-copper alloy that is more flexible and two to three times stronger than commonly-used steel alloys. There are two tantalum aluminides, TaAl3 and Ta3Al. These are stable, refractory, and reflective, and they have been proposed as coatings for use in infrared wave mirrors.
Natural tantalum consists of two isotopes: 180mTa (0.012%) and 181Ta (99.988%). 181Ta is a stable isotope. 180mTa (m denotes a metastable state) is predicted to decay in three ways: isomeric transition to the ground state of 180Ta, beta decay to 180W, or electron capture to 180Hf. However, radioactivity of this nuclear isomer has never been observed. Only a lower limit on its half life of over 1015 years has been set. The ground state of 180Ta has a half life of only 8 hours. 180mTa is the only naturally occurring nuclear isomer (excluding radiogenic and cosmogenic short-living nuclides). It is also the rarest isotope in the Universe, taking into account the elemental abundance of tantalum and isotopic abundance of 180mTa in the natural mixture of isotopes (and again excluding radiogenic and cosmogenic short-living nuclides).
Tantalum has been examined theoretically as a "salting" material for nuclear weapons (cobalt is the better-known hypothetical salting material). An external shell of 181Ta would be irradiated by the intensive high-energy neutron flux from a hypothetical exploding nuclear weapon. This would transmute the tantalum into the radioactive isotope 182Ta, which has a half-life of 114.4 days and produces gamma rays with approximately 1.12 million electron-volts (MeV) of energy apiece, which would significantly increase the radioactivity of the nuclear fallout from the explosion for several months. Such "salted" weapons have never been built or tested, as far as is publicly known, and certainly never used as weapons.
Tantalum is estimated to make up about 1 ppm or 2 ppm of the Earth's crust by weight. There are many species of tantalum minerals, only some of which are so far being used by industry as raw materials: tantalite, microlite, wodginite, euxenite, polycrase. Tantalite (Fe,Mn) Ta2O6 is the most important mineral for tantalum extraction. Tantalite has the same mineral structure as columbite (Fe,Mn) (Ta,Nb)2O6; when there is more Ta than Nb it is called tantalite and when there is more Nb than Ta is it called columbite (or niobite). The high density of tantalite and other tantalum containing minerals makes the use of gravitational separation the best method. Other minerals include samarskite and fergusonite.
The primary mining of tantalum is in Australia, where the largest producer, the Talison Minerals company (formerly part of the Sons of Gwalia company), operates the Wodgina mine. This mine produces tantalite, from which tantalum oxide is separated. Whereas the large-scale producers of niobium are in Brazil and Canada, the ore there also yields a small percentage of tantalum. Some other countries such as China, Ethiopia, and Mozambique mine ores with a higher percentage of tantalum, and they produce a significant percentage of the world's output of it. Tantalum is also produced in Thailand and Malaysia as a by-product of the tin mining there. During gravitational separation of the ores from placer deposits, not only is Cassiterite (SnO2) found, but a small percentage of tantalite also included. The slag from the tin smelters then contains economically useful amounts of tantalum, which is leached from the slag. Future sources of supply of tantalum, in order of estimated size, are being explored in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Greenland, China, Mozambique, Canada, Australia, the United States, Finland, and Brazil.
In central Africa the colloquial term coltan is used to refer to niobium (COLumbium)-containing and TANtalum-containing minerals. The United States Geological Survey reports in its 2006 yearbook that this region produced a little less than 1% of the world's tantalum output for the past four years, peaking at 10% in 2000 and 2008. Ethical questions have been raised about responsible corporate behavior, human rights, and endangering wildlife, due to the exploitation of resources such as coltan in the armed conflict regions of the Congo Basin. According to United Nations report smuggling and exportation of coltan helped fuel the war in the Congo, a crisis that has resulted in approximately 5.4 million deaths since 1998 – making it the world’s deadliest documented conflict since World War II.
Several steps are involved in the extraction of tantalum from tantalite: First the mineral is crushed and concentrated by gravity separation. This is generally carried out near the mine site. Further processing by chemical separation is usually done by treating the ores with a mixture of hydrofluoric acid and sulfuric acid at over 90°C. This causes the tantalum and niobium to dissolve as complex fluorides, which can be separated from the impurities.
Ta2O5 + 14 HF → 2 H2[TaF7] + 5 H2O
Nb2O5 + 10 HF → 2 H2[NbOF5] + 3 H2O
The first industrial-scale separation, developed by de Marignac, used the difference in solubility between the complex niobium and tantalum fluorides K2[NbOF5]•H2O (dipotassium oxypentafluoroniobate monohydrate) and K2[TaF7] (dipotassium heptafluorotantalate) in water. Newer processes use the liquid extraction of the fluorides from aqueous solution by organic solvents such as cyclohexanone. The complex niobium and tantalum fluorides are extracted separately from the organic solvent with water, and either precipitated by the addition of potassium fluoride to produce a potassium fluoride complex, or precipitated with ammonia as the pentoxide:
H2[TaF7] + KF → K2[TaF7]↓ + HF
2 H2[TaF7] + 14 NH4OH → Ta2O5↓ + 14 NH4F + 9 H2O
The resulting potassium fluorotantalate salt is generally treated by reduction with molten sodium to produce a coarse tantalum powder.
The major use for tantalum, as the metal powder, is in the production of electronic components, mainly capacitors and some high-power resistors. Tantalum electrolytic capacitors exploit the tendency of tantalum to form a protective oxide surface layer, using tantalum powder, pressed into a pellet shape, as one "plate" of the capacitor, the oxide as the dielectric, and an electrolytic solution or conductive solid as the other "plate". Because the dielectric layer can be very thin (thinner than the similar layer in, for instance, an aluminium electrolytic capacitor), a high capacitance can be achieved in a small volume. Because of the size and weight advantages, tantalum capacitors are attractive for portable telephones, personal computers, and automotive electronics.
Tantalum is also used to produce a variety of alloys that have high melting points, are strong and have good ductility. Alloyed with other metals, it is also used in making carbide tools for metalworking equipment and in the production of superalloys for jet engine components, chemical process equipment, nuclear reactors, and missile parts. Because of its ductility, tantalum can be drawn into fine wires or filaments, which are used for evaporating metals such as aluminium. Due to the fact that it resists attack by body fluids and is nonirritating, tantalum is widely used in making surgical instruments and implants. For example, porous tantalum coatings are used in the construction of orthopedic implants due to tantalum's ability to form a direct bond to hard tissue.
Tantalum is inert against most acids except hydrofluoric acid and hot sulfuric acid, also hot alkaline solutions cause tantalum to corrode. This property makes it an ideal metal for chemical reaction vessels and pipes for corrosive liquids. Heat exchanging coils for the steam heating of hydrochloric acid are made from tantalum. Tantalum was extensively used in the production of ultra high frequency electron tubes for radio transmitters. The tantalum is capable of capturing oxygen and nitrogen by forming nitrides and oxides and therefore helps to sustain the high vacuum needed for the tubes.
The oxide is used to make special high refractive index glass for camera lenses. The high melting point and oxidation resistance lead to the use of the metal in the production of vacuum furnace parts. Due to its high density, shaped charge and explosively formed penetrator liners have been constructed from tantalum. Tantalum greatly increases the armor penetration capabilities of a shaped charge due to its high density and high melting point. It is also occasionally used in precious watches e.g. from Hublot, Montblanc and Panerai. Tantalum is also highly bioinert and is used as an orthopedic implant material.
Compounds containing tantalum are rarely encountered in the laboratory. The metal is highly biocompatible and is used for body implants and coatings, therefore attention may be focused on other elements or the physical nature of the chemical compound. A single study is the only reference in literature ever linking tantalum to local sarcomas. It is possible the result was due to other factors not considered in the study. The study was quoted in IARC Monograph vol. 74 which includes the following "Note to the reader": "Inclusion of an agent in the Monographs does not imply that it is a carcinogen, only that the published data have been examined."
1. ^ Magnetic susceptibility of the elements and inorganic compounds, in Handbook of Chemistry and Physics 81st edition, CRC press.