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Tantalum Supply Diversity: Foundation for Growth

The recent announcement of an accelerated restart of lithium production at the Wodgina mine in Western Australia (WA) is good news for the lithium industry and its main high grow the end use market, the electric vehicle (EV) industry, as current EV demand growth continues to outpace supply of lithium and other EV battery materials.

This is also good news for the tantalum industry. The Wodgina mine has one of the world’s largest reserves of both lithium and tantalum. The accelerated lithium production plan for Wodgina will also accelerate production of tantalum as a co-product of the lithium mining operation. This further increases and diversifies supply of tantalum, a critical raw material for many high growth electronic, automotive, additive manufacturing, aerospace, medical, and defense related applications.

Global Advanced Metals (GAM), a world leading producer of innovative and conflict-free tantalum products, has exclusive rights to the tantalum co-product at Wodgina.

The Wodgina joint venture partners, Mineral Resources Limited and Albemarle Corporation, recently announced an accelerated timeline to restart lithium production at the Wodgina mine in the Pilbara region of WA(1). The lithium processing facilities at the mine are constructed in modules or “trains”. The recent announcement stated that trains 1 and 2 (out of a total of three currently) will be restarted this year, which in the case of train 2, is a number of years sooner than previously indicated.

GAM owns tantalum recovery plants (TRPs) at each of these lithium processing trains. Lithium and tantalum containing ore is mined, crushed, mixed with water, and sent through GAM’s TRPs to separate a low grade tantalum concentrate before the material is further processed for lithium separation(2). This low percentage tantalum concentrate is then trucked to GAM’s secondary processing facility at Greenbushes, WA (approx. 1000KM south of Wodgina) for further upgrading before shipping to GAM’s tantalum processing facility in Pennsylvania, USA.

GAM also has similar tantalum recovery operations at Greenbushes in WA. Talison Lithium Pty Ltd (Talison) is a joint venture company of partners Tianqi Lithium Corporation, IGO Ltd and Albemarle Corporation. Talison mines and processes lithium from the ore body, while the GAM owned TRPs separate tantalum as a co-product of the mining operation and upgrades the material at GAM’s secondary processing plant at the mine site before shipping to its USA based smelter. This mine has been continuously mined for lithium since 1983(3) and, like Wodgina, is expanding to meet increasing EV demand. GAM’s tantalum volume output is also growing as a co-product of this operation.

Other mining companies in WA are currently and/or are exploring lithium mining in WA and many of these ore bodies also contain economically viable volumes of tantalum. GAM upgrades the low percentage contained tantalum(4) concentrate of many of these companies at GAM’s secondary processing facility at Greenbushes to bring to market through GAM’s USA and Japan based production plants(5).

All of this activity is bringing much needed geographical and mining methodology diversity to the tantalum supply chain. In recent years, tantalum concentrate supply has been heavily reliant on Central African artisanal sources. This trade brings a much needed livelihood to local artisanal miners, and the need for raw material from this source will continue, even as supply from WA increases. Over-reliance on this source, however, has exposed the overall tantalum industry to periods of supply instability. The less formal nature of this supply source has led to supply volume fluctuations, and the trade can be subject to variations in local labor supply and regulations, while prices can be affected by rumor and trader manipulation(6).

The increase in tantalum supply from WA will raise the percentage of global supply from this region from more recent single digit percentages, to between 30-40% of global primary tantalum concentrate supply over the next 2-3 years.

Tantalum demand is going through a long term high growth phase. Tantalum capacitors, for example, are critical components in 5G, Automotive Driver Assist Systems (and other automotive components), cloud computing, and many other high growth electronic applications. Tantalum sputtering targets provide a necessary material in almost all semiconductors. Tantalum is a key component in high temperature environments such as aircraft engines and with long life/high reliability requirements such as medical implants(7).

As lithium output expands to meet the demands of the clean energy revolution, so too will the output, stability and diversity of tantalum supply to meet the increasing connectivity, medical, aerospace, additive manufacturing, and defense demands. Industry growth needs a stable foundation.

2. Lithium is the lightest metal (0.534g/cm3), and tantalum is one of the most dense (16.6g/cm3) proving that opposites attract.

3. In fact, Greenbushes is the longest continuing mining area in WA. It started tin mining in 1906. GAM still extracts tin along with the tantalum co-product. The area, about 250km south of Perth, is as green as its name implies while Wodgina is in a desert.

4. The % tantalum in the “primary” concentrate is typically in single digits. GAM’s secondary processing plant upgrades this to an approx. 30% concentration before shipping to GAM downstream processing plants.

5. GAM processing plants are in Boyertown, Pennsylvania and Aizu, Japan.

6. There is also the entire complex “conflict mineral” issue which will be the scope of a future article. In 2010, GAM was the first processor of any metal type to be audited and declared “conflict free” by the industry recognized Responsible Mineral Initiative. It has been successfully audited annually since.

7. There are tantalum capacitors in the Mars rover. Reliability is important up there as, like down here, it’s nearly impossible to get an electrician when you need one.

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