Tungsten is a very little understood in the investing world. At this moment, in the ASX, there is only one company that is a significant player in the Tungsten commodity space, and that is Tungsten Mining (ASX: TGN). In my opinion, this will be the next EV story. I believe that it is time for tungsten to take on The Next EV Story.
Elon Musk famously starts his PhD thesis on a topic related to Tungsten Battery. Tungsten is a rare metal, and to my knowledge, there is only one real high-grade deposit (Cantung Mine, Canada) that is economical to go into production. Hence, it is not a simple commodity to make into production. This commodity is all about a large-scale and low-grade scenario. Anyone tells you otherwise is gunning for a job :-).
As we move into the high tech space, tungsten properties become increasingly important. It is not a high usage metal, but it is of high value mainly due to its rarity status in the commodity world.
What is Tungsten?
Wikipedia has the following brief about Tungsten.
Tungsten, or Wolfram, is a chemical element with symbol W and atomic number 74. The name tungsten comes from the former Swedish name for the tungstate mineral scheelite, from tung sten “heavy stone”. Tungsten is a rare metal found naturally on Earth almost exclusively combined with other elements in chemical compounds rather than alone. It was identified as a new element in 1781 and first isolated as a metal in 1783. Its important ores include wolframite and scheelite.
The free element is remarkable for its robustness, especially the fact that it has the highest melting point of all the elements discovered, melting at 3422 °C (6192 °F, 3695 K). It also has the highest boiling point, at 5930 °C (10706 °F, 6203 K). Its density is 19.3 times that of water, comparable to that of uranium and gold, and much higher (about 1.7 times) than that of lead. Polycrystalline tungsten is an intrinsically brittle and hard material (under standard conditions, when uncombined), making it difficult to work. However, pure single-crystalline tungsten is more ductile and can be cut with a hard-steel hacksaw.
Tungsten’s many alloys have numerous applications, including incandescent light bulb filaments, X-ray tubes (as both the filament and target), electrodes in TIG welding, superalloys, and radiation shielding. Tungsten’s hardness and high density give it military applications in penetrating projectiles. Tungsten compounds are also often used as industrial catalysts.
Tungsten is the only metal from the third transition series that is known to occur in biomolecules that are found in a few species of bacteria and archaea. It is the heaviest element known to be essential to any living organism. Tungsten interferes with molybdenum and copper metabolism and is somewhat toxic to animal life.
What is Tungsten for?
Some typical use of Tungsten,
- Historically and commonly used as filaments in incandescent light bulbs. Alternative lighting has replaced these light bulbs.
- Used in electric contacts and arc-welding electrodes.
- Used as alloys, such as steel.
- It is most famous for being used for armour plating and armour piercing “objects”.
- Tungsten carbide is the main component in Cement carbide. The high strength makes it ideal as a cutting tool for machining of steel.
- X-ray tubes for medical use have a tungsten emitter coil, and the screen used to view X-rays rely on calcium and magnesium tungstate phosphors to convert x-rays into the visible blue light.
- Used in microchip technology and liquid crystals displays.
- It is also one of the items used to help our phones vibrate.
NanoBolt Lithium Tungsten Batteries
Researchers at N1 Technologies have been working on battery anode materials. They added tungsten and carbon multi-layered nanotubes that bond to the copper anode substrate and build up a web-like nanostructure. This layer formed a vast surface for more ions to attach to during recharge and discharge cycles. That makes recharging the NanoBolt lithium tungsten battery faster, and it also stores more energy.
Nanotubes are ready to be cut to size for use in any Lithium Battery design.
Fast Charging Battery
One of the studies that have happened in Tungsten batteries is that they can charge quickly. Traditional Li batteries are still lagging in this department.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK have shown that two complex niobium tungsten oxides can intercalate large amounts of lithium even when the oxides are microns in size. The new work will be necessary for developing systems that require high power delivery and fast charging (think of a mobile phone that could be fully charged in just minutes). It could also have implications for solid-state energy storage for example, in electric cars, and grid-scale storage for solar power.
It is all about the Nano Technology and Tungsten Carbide.
The basic concept is that using the conventional Li battery structure, the need for high-speed charging will cause the current structure to overcompensate and explode and this was probably the problem with the Samsung Note issue. The use of the tungsten niobium compound will allow a more stable environment for high-density storage and high-speed charging.
One of the reported niobium tungsten oxides is built from 4 x 5 blocks of (Nb,W)O6 octahedra that are connected along shear planes, he adds. The other, the “bronze-like” phase, is held open by pillars of oxygen that prop open the atomic layers. Both compounds are easily synthesized and allow lithium ions to quickly move through them in 3D. Their architectures also make them more rigid than other battery materials.
“They may be able to safely offer higher densities at high discharge/charge rates and could thus be used in systems requiring high power delivery and/or fast charging, possibly in combination with lower rate, high-energy-density batteries,” he says. The fact that they can readily be produced without any additional chemicals or solvents is another point in their favour.
I have seen research on this technology since 2009. The critical component is the introduction of tungsten to help alleviate the heat issue.
This is where nanoengineering comes into the picture. The researchers at the University of Central Florida created supercapacitors made from nanowires composed of a one-dimensional core (made of highly single-crystalline tungsten trioxide) wrapped with two two-dimensional shells (made of tungsten disulfide) that are separated by a subnanometer gap. The research is reported in the American Chemical Society journal Nano. — www.forbes.com
What Does This All Mean?
If you have read my earlier article, you would know my thoughts on Tungsten. Sometimes when you are too close to the picture, it is hard to see the wood from the trees. I was passionate about the tungsten market, but there was always one issue that I could not understand. The demand and supply dynamics of tungsten. The recent pricing seems to indicate that it has come up from the low USD$200+ per MTU. However, there does not seem to be any catalyst in the market to make it run to the highs of 2011 of USD$450 per MTU.
The biggest problem for Tungsten is the view that there is a shit load of Tungsten in China. The buyers are mostly Chinese, and there are not that many money making tungsten mines in the world. If there are no massive subsidies given or “artificially” given for the survival of the project, I don’t see too many mines coming on stream.
If that is true, you would expect a spike in the pricing or a future spike. The truth is there is no evidence of that happening, why you ask? I want to know also… 🙂 In fact, there is strong evidence of the reverse.
Maybe the catalyst is in all these new uses of Tungsten. I believe that the specific properties of Tungsten, the high melting point, will be the one that will make the commodity more critical than any other product. The fact that the metal is dense, durable and has a high melting point will be what is required by the high tech industry. As the marketplace continues to devour things of high efficiency, the speed of work and storage capacity, you will need metals or commodities that can handle all of those. All the research I am seeing is there is a flow towards technology.
The traditional use is still pumping along, except for light bulbs. So the demand will always be there, and if I am correct, the new technological applications may push tungsten to new highs.
It was only a few years ago that I learned of the research of tungsten batteries. When I Googled for information, there were not that many. However, times have changed as there are ample research papers on this topic now. It also appears that the researchers are well advanced.
My conclusions are of optimism and pondering why this market should not be higher. I belief that there will be a lot of demand created from the specific properties of tungsten. The new tech, the new EV requirements will be my optimism. The lithium industry will see some downfall is my long call.
My ponderance is what is the real story on supply. If you believe that China has found a large deposit as reported in 2012 (Samso_TheAustralianArticle), then there is no more need to waste money on deposits anywhere in the world. We should stop exploring and mining for tungsten. Why has the price not been deflated? Is this like how the oil cartel has kept the oil price from falling all those years by delaying supply?
I don’t think I can have an answer to that question and only time will tell.
What I will reaffirm is my confidence that Tungsten may well be the next flavour of the month….. When will that happen? That is a good question… 🙂 It is all about the value proposition for investors.
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