Material Production: Tantalum

Abstract

Tantalum is a naturally occurring material. It is found in countries such as Congo where political strife is at its best. The use of tantalum cannot be overstated. It is used in capacitor development among other usages. Capacitors form a critical part all electronics. The author reliably finds that experts have been on the lookout for possible alternatives for tantalum found in capacitors chips. Until recently, when niobium has gained a lot of traction, results have not been optimally satisfactory. Niobium fits the bill in terms of natural availability, price, and longevity. Additionally, it is almost as perfect in capacitors functions as tantalum.

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Although niobium has just been discovered its usage is quickly becoming popular. Experts and manufacturers in general continue to offer glowing tribute to niobium. A cost analysis indicates that it is cheaper that tantalum in many fronts. Its environmental and political costs are relatively few. For example, niobium has almost zero environmental impact apart from the manufacturing bit. Political strife can be avoided as manufacturers go into countries where relative stability is the order of day. Prices may reduce as manufacturers compete for prices. Hence, the benefits of niobium outweigh the benefits of tantalum despite the previously and readily available benefits of tantalum.

Introduction

Tantalum is a naturally occurring metal in relatively few countries. The countries include Congo, Mozambique, Nigeria, Thailand, and Malaysia 3. Among other usages, tantalum is used in the manufacture of chips found in most capacitors. Capacitors are an important addition in virtually all electronics. Congo is the main producer of tantalum and the country where tantalum is found in huge deposits. However, Congo’s political atmosphere is highly volatile.

Most of the naturally occurring metals including gold are in the hands of rebels, and a shaky government. Additionally, multinationals and illegal global factions control the political situation to make gains. The situation compromises production of these metals to full potential. Experts have, for a long time, looked for alternatives to counter the over dependence on tantalum in the production of chips found in capacitors. The solutions range from ceramic capacitors, alternative designs and architecture, solid polymer aluminum among others. Lately, however, niobium has surpassed all these alternatives in light of weighted advantages.

First, the metal is naturally occurring in a many countries all over the globe. This ensures that global demand will forever be met. It also curtails any political interference occasioned by rivalry and jostling for resources 1. Political conflicts restrict the optimal production of naturally occurring substances. Sometimes, this hampers optimal production of the products, in this case capacitors. This paper will examine niobium as a perfect alternative for tantalum. In this light, niobium’s favorable characteristics will be weighed against tantalums. Additionally, the paper will advance other alternatives with the aim of comparing with niobium and tantalum. The paper will provide a political and environmental cost analysis of niobium. Finally, the paper will examine closely the costs associated with niobium as the most favorable alternative.

Product to be Duplicated

Capacitors are an important addition to any electronic product. The study will look into capacitors as the products to be duplicated. Capacitors can be produced from different materials such glass, mica, paper and ceramics 7.

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While there are different types of capacitors, tantalum produces the best product. For example, they have high dielectric performances, commendable performance under high temperatures, high leakage, and comparably better performance under very high frequencies. Because of these reasons, the highly unavailable tantalum is quite fundamental. All electronics manufacturers need capacitors, as they are the core of completion of circuits. To duplicate the results of tantalum, manufacturers have dedicated so many resources. However, only few metals and products have come close to matching the performance. However, niobium is billed as a highly probable replacement with the introduction of new technology to match tantalum in capacitors. 1

Performance Characteristics of the Product

A capacitor should have the following characteristics. First, a capacitor should have the capability to store energy. A capacitor retains a certain amount of energy in any complete circuit. Storage of energy is crucial in devices that will require the energy to start again. For example, a car engines may lose all energy once switched off making it hard to restart 4.

A capacitor serves that purpose. Secondly, capacitors correct the power factor. In uneven circuits, capacitors are used in threes to enable the inductive loading from main sources of energy. This ensures that such circuits are not dangerous for human beings operating machines with such circuits. Third, capacitors have the ability to pass only AC signals. Additionally, they block DC signals. This capability (known as signal coupling) is quite crucial in the manufacture of certain products such as Radio Frequency Interference (RFIs).

The characteristics can be tweaked to include “snubber” and starting capacitors to make use of this function further 4. The function is particularly important in high frequency products such oil exploration machines. Fourth, capacitors are crucial in sensory machines such as in hospitals. Their energy storage capability comes in handy in the production of heart machines and other highly sensitive products 2. Hence, their component replacements should not undermine this fact.

Replacement Material’s Characteristics

Niobium is billed as highly probable replacement for Tantalum in the production of capacitors. While it does not meet most of the characteristics above, the production and usage has been met with technology that tries to tweak it to fit the bill. For example, niobium has been mixed with other metals in a laboratory setting to meet the characteristics of tantalum. This includes heating under high pressure. However, the availability of niobium is a question. It is available in countries whose political stability is questionable 5. However, the fact that it is not centrally located like tantalum makes it a more viable option in that regard. Notably, the use of tantalum chip capacitors has greatly reduced over the years owing to the scarcity of tantalum and the adoption of other alternatives. The most popular of the alternatives is the use of niobium chip capacitors. 1

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The capacitance of niobium powder is the main driver of the new adoption. Niobium’s capacitance stands 1 at 80,000-110,000 CV/gram 6. This is almost equivalent to tantalums and other powders. Because of the worldwide availability of niobium, pricing flexibility is available. Additionally, the possibility of a political standoff that cripples usage of noble metals is completely negated. It is also crucial to note that niobium caps can easily replace tantalum caps for capacitance-oriented capacitors 3.

This is because addition of some laboratory chemicals greatly increases resistance in niobium. However, niobium’s ability in technical terms to replace tantalum is a source of expert discussion and critical evaluation. The jury is still out in that front. However, niobium is the newest and best replacement available so far for capacitors whose chips mainly contained tantalum 6.

Other (Reasonable) Materials Examined

There are other alternatives available to replace tantalum chip capacitors. However, because of various reasons, they do not surpass or replace niobium in the race to reduce over dependence on tantalum. One of them is a possible redesign of the “capacitative” architecture 5. X2Y Attenuators, according to experts, creates higher performance and reduces dependence of filtering and decoupling options. This creates high caps and better resistance 4.

The other option is usage of solid polymer aluminum. Though they have lower levels capacitance range, they have better resistance and longer life cycles. The other option is a ceramic capacitor. This capacitor is quite cheap compared to all the other options it is also readily available. However, not all facets of performance match other alternatives. This makes it affordable in the eye of manufacturers 8.

Quantity Availability Examination of the Replacement Material

Niobium is a readily available alternative. It is globally available. Many countries can procure the product and manufacturers can easily make it available in the market. The ores that contain niobium are also quite huge making its depletion a rare occurrence 5.

It is available in countries such as Congo, South Africa, and Kenya, in South American nations, Asian nations and in Australia in relatively large quantities. It is available in a host of other countries although exploration may not make economic sense because of the availability in large quantities in the countries mentioned above. Hence, niobium is a favorable replacement of tantalum in terms of meeting market demand. The countries may supply the world requirement for the manufacture of niobium for the next 10 decades without even reaching half the deposits according to experts 6.

Environmental and Political “Costs” of the New Material

Exploration of niobium poses no environmental concern. First, it does not lead to global warming in its pure form 7. The process, as in any manufacturing process, may lead to global warming, but niobium’s pure form does not. Unlike tantalum, which experts say has mild global warming implications, niobium does not making it an even better replacement in that front. Unlike tantalum whose production and availability is in hostile nations such as Congo, niobium is readily available in nations that pose no political danger.

This makes production easy for manufacturers. The countries can produce and manufacture niobium to the global market making the prices affordable for most manufacturers. Hence, the product is relatively cheap. The new material also brings about the concept of longevity of the production of capacitors without worry. With the global population set to increase two fold in the next 30 years and economic 7 expansion expected in many countries demand for electronics will quadruple according to experts. Hence, the use of niobium provides the perfect cover in light of this.

Cost Analysis for the New Alternate Material

Manufacturers cost of production will greatly reduce in a regime where niobium is used in place of tantalum in the production of chips for capacitors. The availability of niobium globally will greatly reduce “political costs”. In volatile countries where tantalum is found, majorly in Africa, political instability has greatly hampered supply of tantalum. The demand has therefore not been satisfied. Usage of niobium, which is naturally occurring in various countries across virtually all continents, will reduce costs. It will also increase competition, which will have an overall effect of value addition and cost reduction. The infrastructure in some of the countries in where niobium is occurring is readily available 7.

This includes roads, machinery, and economic goodwill unlike in African countries such as Congo, Nigeria, and Mozambique. The infrastructure will have an overall positive impact in reducing costs associated with capacitors production. Tantalum production has for a long time been hampered by nongovernmental organizations that bring about the issue of ethical responsibility of companies. Companies should strive to operate in an environment where international labor practices are adhered. In Congo, for example, rebels continue to use child soldiers and employees to safe guard their territories 8. The implication is that these children do not get education and live distraught conditions.

When the products they partake in production hit the market, most global organizations hamper their marketability by raising the ethical question. However, the manufacturers do not have an option. Use of niobium will create many options for the manufacturers and effectively lift the ethical barrier. The cost of advertising “buying out” territories and controlling them to remain relevant will be eliminated too.

Table 1: Availability of ores.

Tantalum Availability Niobium Availability
Country %age Availability Country %age Availability
Congo 40% of world total Congo Less than 10%
Mozambique 7% of the world ores available here Mozambique Less than 5%
Nigeria Around 5% of the world ores Nigeria Less than 10%
Other countries The other countries control the rest of the ores Other countries Over 75% of the world ores

Table 1 above indicates the availability levels of these two naturally occurring metals. Niobium, as table 1 above shows is spread out across many world countries. This flexibility makes it hard for political strife to interfere with its production. The outgoing is the case with tantalum. Physicists and engineers prefer this metal in the production of semi conductors. However, its production and manufacture is hampered by political, social, and governmental structures in the countries they are abundantly found. Although the countries are making strides towards the betterment of their current state, engineers are already moving towards other options as noted above.

Over the last decade, the cost of producing and manufacturing tantalum has quadrupled. Despite the increase in prices, tantalum’s availability has drastically reduced. Market dynamics characterized by increase in demand for the metal and constantly reducing supply have experienced hiccups. The price increase means that other options are increasingly gaining traction to fight possible shortages. The leading option so far is niobium whose advantages have been listed previously in this paper.

Still on the cost associated with non-availability of Tantalum, global warming is currently been discussed by experts extensively. Global warming according to experts will continuously and gradually erode the ‘naturalness’ in the world and bring with it catastrophic consequences. These resources did not necessarily have the direct effect of reducing costs. However, the self-regulation by all stakeholders involved would go a long way in reducing wastages and hence curtailing a growing trend in the depletion of the scarce naturally found resources.

References

  1. D.E. Blight et al., “The metals in semi conductors and their components”, Journal of Chemistry and Sociology 1, 87-89 (1972).
  2. A.L. Lovy, “Semi conductors and their production”, The Journal Alliance 27, 1413 (2012).
  3. A.J. Ndoli, “Effect of Congo strife”, International Journal of Agriculture and Science 2, 144-156 (2012).
  4. H.H. Seliger, “Applications of metals”, Physics Today 48 (11), 25-35 (1995).
  5. G.A. Beer et al., “Metals and ores”, Physics Review Letters 57, 671-690 (1986).
  6. T.M. Huber et al., “Metals,” Physics Review Letters 61, 2189-3010 (1988).
  7. J.J. Amato et al., “Semiconductors”, Physics Review Letters 21, 1709-1729 (1968).
  8. G.M. Marshall et al., “World metals and applications”, Physics Review 25, 1174-1175 (1982).
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