The heavy mineral tungsten was discovered in 18th century Sweden and has since been applied to everything from shaping metals and alloys to lighting filaments. In 1781, Carl Wilhelm Scheele published the results of an extremely dense mineral that had been dubbed “tungsten,” which translates to “heavy stone” in Swedish. In his study, he found that the mineral contained lime and an unknown acid.
A professor at Uppsalada University in Sweden, Torbern Bergman, suggested that reducing the acid could produce a new metal. Two years later, in Spain, Bergman and his student Juan José de D’Elhuyar heated the same mineral with charcoal, reducing the acid and producing what we know today as tungsten, though de D’Elhuyar called it “volfram”. Today, though the metal still is commonly referred to as tungsten, it is represented by a “W” on the periodic table in reference to volfram, or “wolfram.”
Tungsten is mined all over the world, though China leads the way in production with an output of 68,000 tonnes in 2014. This production number makes those that follow look tiny in comparison, with Russia coming in second at 3,600 tonnes, followed by Canada at 2,200 tonnes. Deposits can be found near orogenic belts — or areas where tectonic plates have collided to form mountains. These belts run through the Far East, the Asiatic part of Russia, the east coast of Australia, the Alpine belt, as well as the Rocky and the Andes mountains.
The supply of tungsten to be mined is extremely high, however much of it is not easily accessible. Therefore, the long-term view of tungsten prices is the main factor in whether or not the mineral will be economically viable. Additionally, fluctuating price differentials between concentrate and upgraded products as well as government restrictions affect the market prices.
Another issue related to tungsten in mining is that a good portion of it can be found in war-stricken countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo. Because of the dangerous conditions there, minerals mined in the DRC and surrounding countries are dubbed “conflict minerals” or “blood metals.” Organizations around the world have been trying to fight the use of minerals from these areas, which include tungsten, tin, tantalum and gold and certain governments have attempted to put policies in place to regulate the use of them, including the US and the UK.
The applications of tungsten are extremely varied, and the hardness of the mineral makes it valuable for shaping everything from metals to plastics and ceramics. About two-thirds of tungsten is used for cemented carbide and other construction and chemical applications. However, it is also used for everyday purposes like the vibration alert in cell phones, light bulb filaments, solar panels and window heating.