Tungsten: A Strategic Metal

What is tungsten?

The name ‘tungsten’ comes from the Swedish words ‘tung sten’ meaning ‘heavy stone’ in reference to the mineral scheelite. Tungsten’s chemical symbol W comes from the German name Wolfram. Wolframite and scheelite are the two naturally occurring tungsten ores important for industrial use. In its raw form tungsten is a hard steel-grey metal that is often brittle and hard to work, pure tungsten metal is shiny white and quite pliant. Its hardness in carbide form is second only to that of diamond and it has the highest melting point (at 3410°C) of all metallic elements.

The main use of tungsten is the manufacture of cemented carbides or hard metals; wear resistant materials used in metalworking, mining, oil and construction industries. It has diverse commercial, industrial and military applications including hardening steels, use in the manufacture of armaments, lighting (light bulb filaments), electronic and chemical industries. Another of its numerous applications includes the technology market where it is used in the touch screens of smartphone devices.

Wolframite, from which tungsten is derived, is also a known conflict metal in the Democratic Republic of Congo where proceeds from its production are used to fund civil conflict. To read more about RCF’s responsible investment in Africa click here.

Why is tungsten a strategic metal?

Tungsten is one of the raw materials identified by the British Geological Surveys, US Department of Defense and European Commission as a ‘critical’ raw material due to its economic importance and supply risk. They describe raw materials such as tungsten as ‘being essential for maintaining and improving our quality of life’ and as a result, securing reliable access is of a concern across all of these jurisdictions and around the world.

Strategic metals are distinct from precious metals such as silver and gold, because most are not as vital to technology and industry. They also differ from base metals, such as copper, lead, iron and zinc, in that those metals are relatively abundant in locations around the world.

Tungsten has few, if any, substitutes available in its key applications due to its unique properties of heat resistance and wear rate. China is the largest consumer of tungsten globally and also the largest supplier, according to US Geological Survey estimates it accounted for 85% of production in 2013. China’s Government regulates its tungsten industry through its Chinese Ministry of Land and Resources who delivers an annual extraction quota for the country’s tungsten production.

What is the global outlook for tungsten?

The demand for tungsten is often linked to general economic activity which makes regional gross domestic product (GDP) a helpful growth indicator. With minimal growth in Chinese domestic tungsten production, research completed by Roskill Information Services predicts that ‘China is likely to further reduce exports and increase imports of tungsten products to ensure domestic demand is satisfied. Non-Chinese sources of tungsten will have to replace falling Chinese exports and allow global demand to increase unrestricted.’

The US Geological Survey estimates also forecast that mine production from outside China is expected to increase. Their research predicts that the amount, location and timing of future production will depend on the companies’ abilities to acquire the necessary funding to complete new projects.