WESTERN AUSTRALIA: by Joe PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Rare mineral's use in miniaturised gadgets
, March 17, 2007
A WA firm supplies over half of the world's tantalite, a rare but strategically important mineral essential for telecommunications and electronic goods. Joe Poprzeczny reports.
Perth-based mining company, Sons of Gwalia, has several little-known but notable claims to fame. It is the name of the company that the Californian-trained mining engineer and later U.S. President, Herbert Hoover, managed during his brief late 1890s stay in Western Australia's arid eastern goldfields.
Secondly, Sons of Gwalia has a history of supplying over half of the world's tantalite, a rare mineral used in mobile phones, personal computers, camcorders and video-games consoles.
Tantalite is processed and refined into tantalum, a grey-blue metal that is used to manufacture capacitors, devices that regulate the flow of electricity within integrated electronic circuits.
Without tantalum the boom of the past two or so decades in the miniaturised electronic consumer-goods sector, especially mobile phones, could not have occurred in the way we've known it.
In addition, Sons of Gwalia owns not one, but two of the world's richest tantalite deposits, both of which are situated in Western Australia.
The first, where over half the company's annual tantalite is mined, is at Wodgina, in the Pilbara, 1,300 kilometres north of Perth. The second is at Greenbushes, 260 kilometres south of Perth.More isolated
Each operation has a staff (including contractors) of about 200, with most of those working the more isolated Wodgina deposit, but living in Perth and commuting there on a fly-in-fly-out basis.
Those employed at Greenbushes live in the town of the same name.
Wodgina and Greenbushes together make Australia the major international tantalite supplier by far and consequently a key player in the world's hi-tech sector - more so comparatively speaking than, say, Saudi Arabia within the international crude oil trade.
Yet only a tiny number of Australians are likely to be aware of Sons of Gwalia's two mining operations, and not many more would know that tantalite exists and makes life so convenient for them.
It's worth noting that the Wodgina deposit was acquired by the Commonwealth Government during World War II because of tantalite's strategic importance.
An easily overlooked reason for the Allied defeat of the major Axis powers - Germany and Japan especially - was the fact that the first generation of the then already quite advanced communications and information processing equipment was in Allied hands.
Moreover, although the Greenbushes deposit was known about as early as the 1880s, it did not begin being exploited until 1944 when World War II had boosted demand.
Sons of Gwalia's chief executive, Peter Robinson, says that virtually all modern-day electronic goods utilise tantalum.
"But there are only tiny - very tiny - amounts inside some of the components within them," Robinson said.
"Inside your Nokia, Samsung, Motorola or any other mobile you're likely to own, there's only the equivalent of a grain of sand.
"So we're talking about a few cents worth of tantalite in each unit."Unique property
He said that processed tanatalite was used to manufacture capacitors with the unique property of being able to store tiny quantities of electrical charge that can be drawn whenever needed.
Research and development by hi-tech component manufacturers has meant ever tinier amounts of tantalum can store ever greater quantities of electrical charge, called capacitance, thereby permitting electronic gadgetry to be ever smaller and more compact.
Robinson points out that Sons of Gwalia's two Western Australian mining operations hold ore that contains between 0.01 and 0.05 per cent tantalite.
But he adds that this extremely low concentration level is still around 100 times higher than in some gold-bearing ores that are currently being mined across Western Australia.
"Tantalite, like gold, is extremely valuable, so very low concentrations in ore can be and are mined - it all swings on the final price of the metal."
Currently, tantalum is valued at around about the same price as silver, approximately $13.50 per ounce, which makes the Wodgina and Greenbushes deposits worth exploiting.
Ore at both mine sites is processed using water and gravity to initially boost concentration to the 10 per cent level, after which Wodgina's output is road-freighted more than 1,500 kilometres southwards to Green-bushes where it is further concentrated to about 30 per cent.
Processing includes wet and dry techniques as well as magnetic and electrostatic separators.
"We have the capacity to mill about three million tonnes of ore at Wodgina and four million tonnes at Greenbushes," Robinson said.
"The final, or 30 per cent, concentrate is then shipped to our buyers in, primarily, the United States and Germany, but also to China."
The processed concentrate is sold under long-term supply contracts.
Sons of Gwalia has two long-standing customers: Cabot Corporation in the United States, and HC Starck, currently a division of the German chemical giant, Bayer Group, although a sale by Bayer has recently been announced.
The company has been supplying both refiners since the early 1990s.
Cabot and Starck sell their refined metal, tantalum, to hi-tech component manufacturers who then supply electronic commodity producers.
Robinson said that the use of tantalite has increased markedly over the past decade and agreed that, if output from both Western Australian operations stalled for some unforeseen reason, the international electronics world would face a major crisis.
Currently, Greenbushes tantalum operations are on care and maintenance due to high stock levels in the tantalum supply chain.
One industry source said the annual growth in demand for tantalum had averaged about 6 per cent since 1990, meaning the future for both Western Australian deposits remains bright.
Robinson hastens to add that, over time, demand could be met by other suppliers, but so far no deposits of the scale of Wodgina or Greenbushes had been found.
Although Sons of Gwalia does not have a supply monopoly, it is the world's leading supplier by a long way.
Both Canada and Ethiopia produce small quantities of tantalite, as does Brazil, and there are known deposits in central Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and Namibia.
However, mining investment in Africa has been hindered by ongoing political instability and lack of security for both investors and potential employees.
Tantalite mining is associated with tin deposits, and the downsizing of the tin industry across South East Asia and other parts of the world during the 1980s helped put Western Australia into its pre-eminent leadership position.
Although about half the world's tantalite is directed into electronics, it is also an important ingredient in high-speed cutting-tools, aircraft turbine blades and an array of medical appliances such as implants and pacemakers.- Joe Poprzeczny.