Gold, silver, and diamond top most holiday shopping lists, but another mineral is just as valuable to the manufacturing industry.
Tungsten or wolfram is a highly valued mineral all over the world because of its extreme hardness and ability to withstand very high temperatures.
Derived from wolframite and scheelite ores, it’s one of the heaviest metals with a density of 19.25 grams per cubic centimeter, and a boiling point of 5,700°C — roughly the temperature of the sun’s surface!
These outstanding physical properties make tungsten ideal for many industrial uses, such as cement carbides for tools used in the construction, petroleum, mining, and metalworking industries. It’s also suitable for aerospace applications and is a valuable component of X-ray tubes, filaments for light bulbs, and for making alloys used in armaments, heat sinks, weights, counterweights, darts, tail ballasts of commercial aircrafts, and turbine blades of jet engines.
This steel-gray metal is also becoming a choice medium of jewelers as it is hypoallergenic, highly resistant to scratching, and never needs polishing.
According to the International Tungsten Industry Association, tungsten reserves globally are at seven million tons.
These reserves are estimated to last the next 140 years. As it is non-renewable, recycling of tungsten scraps is also vital to the industry. Major tungsten producers are Austria, Bolivia, Canada, Portugal, Thailand, and China.
China supplies over 80% of global tungsten production. Its main supplies of tungsten come from Guangxi in the west, through Hunan, Guangdong, and Jiangxi to the south of Fujian.
With a registered capital of RMB 600 million, the Jiangxi Tungsten Industry Group Corp. Ltd (JXTI) is currently the biggest tungsten producer in China. The firm was created from a merger between Jiangxi Rare Earth and Rare Metals Tungsten Group Corp., and China Minmetals Non- Ferrous Metals Corp. Ltd.
Tight Hold on Tungsten
As the world’s leading tungsten producer, China virtually holds the power to drive its prices up or down in the world market through tactics like export limitations.
This is why manufacturers based outside China have an axe to grind.
In September 2007, the World Trade Organization received a submission from the United States accusing China that its export quotas on several raw materials, such as tungsten, needed for manufacturing finished products are hurting the operational expenses of companies outside China.
Officials from Washington explain that while these restrictions cause an oversupply of goods that keeps costs low for Chinese manufacturers, American companies and firms elsewhere are forced to pay more for raw materials essential to mining and construction.
Submissions sent to the WTO do not include legal complaints. Instead, they are meant only to thresh out disagreements between WTO members.
Full Speed ahead
Despite problems such as these, worldwide consumption of tungsten remains robust.
In 2005, China consumed 20,000 tons of tungsten, or about 33% of the year’s total global production, as compared to only 9,000 tons it used up in 1996. Ranking second in consumption for 2005 was Europe (16,150 tons or 27%), followed by the USA (8,800 tons or 15%), and Japan (7,950 tons or 13%).
From 2005 through 2006, tungsten prices have remained at an average of US$123 per metric ton.
In the first quarter of 2006, China exported US$200 million worth of tungsten-based chemicals and imported US$40 million worth of tungsten. Tungsten exports were at 5,955 tons, while imports were at 1,509 tons.
Last year, the Philippines exported to Greater China and Korea tungsten halogen lamps worth US$2,018,396 freight-on-board value.
Driving this high consumption rate is China’s rapid economic ascent and its hosting of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Ever since 2001, when it won the International Olympic Committee’s nod to stage the 29th Olympiad, the Asian giant has been on fast-track mode, building and improving transportation systems, world-class stadiums, and other facilities to accommodate (and impress) foreign contingents.
With tungsten figures on the rise, it isn’t hard to imagine this low-profile ore outshining its more lustrous cousins in the global trade arena.
Print ed: 12/07