With a melting point of 3,422°C, tungsten has the highest heat resistance of any metal. Combined with other valuable properties, such as high density and tensile strength, this makes tungsten very useful in a variety of applications – meaning it’s also highly sought after.
It’s most often used to form alloys that lend tungsten’s strengths to other metals. Originally known for light bulb filaments, a common modern use for tungsten is making extremely tough tools and equipment in carbon compound form as tungsten carbide.
Despite its popularity, tungsten – also known as wolfram in some parts of the world – is actually a relatively rare metal. If you’re curious about the rarity of tungsten and where it’s mined from, read on to discover the answers to your questions.
How abundant is tungsten?
Tungsten metal does not occur in nature as a free element – it has to be extracted from mined ores such as scheelite (calcium tungstate) or wolframite (iron manganese tungstate). The tungsten oxide extracted from these ores is typically heated with carbon or hydrogen to form tungsten powder.
It’s difficult to determine abundance values with complete certainty, especially for rarer elements, but Encyclopaedia Britannica puts the amount of tungsten in the planet’s crust at around 1.5 parts per million (1.5g per tonne). Meanwhile, the US Department of Energy estimates tungsten’s crustal abundance to be closer to 1.25mg per 1kg.
Is tungsten a precious metal?
Despite being rare, tungsten is not a precious metal – rare metals are not the same thing as precious metals. To be classified as precious, metals must not only occur naturally in the Earth’s crust in small amounts, but also be a desirable commodity – like gold and silver. Tungsten is not used for currency, nor for jewellery and art at the same level.
Tungsten is also not considered a rare earth element (REE), though its abundance ranks amongst the rarest of them. Rare earth elements are a group of 17 heavy metals that occur in such low concentrations that deposits worth mining without massive expense are difficult to find.
Instead, tungsten is classed as one of the refractory metals. This is a much smaller group of metallic elements, with some of the highest melting points, densities, and corrosion resistance levels of any metals. The other metals in this group include tantalum, rhenium, molybdenum, and niobium.
Where is tungsten found?
The production of tungsten from viable ore mines is limited to particular parts of world. China has the largest tungsten reserves in the world at 1.8 million metric tonnes, almost half of the world’s total 3.8 million metric tonne reserve in 2022. In comparison, the country with the second largest tungsten reserve is Russia, with 0.4 million metric tonnes.
Having the biggest natural supply of tungsten also makes China the largest producer of tungsten in the world, with an estimated production volume of 71,000 metric tonnes in 2022 alone. This is over 5 times as much as the rest of the world combined (13,100 metric tonnes). Again, by contrast, the second largest producer of tungsten – Vietnam – only produced 4,800 metric tonnes in 2022.
While the majority of the world’s tungsten can be found in China, it can also be found more sparsely distributed across the rest of the world, including not just Russia and Vietnam but also Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Korea, Rwanda, Thailand, and more. In Europe, the largest tungsten supplies are found in Spain, Austria, and Portugal.
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Is tungsten a critical raw material?
The British Geological Survey (BGS), the European Commission (EC), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) have all identified tungsten as a ‘critical raw material’. Up to 30–50 raw materials, including metallic elements, are considered ‘critical’ due to their high demand and importance in various industries exceeding their low abundance.
Raw materials like tungsten pose an issue because they are primarily sourced in specific parts of the world, with other countries relying on imports to meet their supply needs. This means that a shortage or supply disruption would be critical for regions like Europe, which is responsible for consuming 25% of the world’s raw materials (while only producing 3%).
With 69% of the European Union’s tungsten supply coming from China, which isn’t necessarily known for its political stability, and over 2.2% of the world’s tungsten coming from other politically unstable countries, tungsten supply disruptions are a valid concern.
This is especially worrisome if you consider predictions that the Earth’s tungsten ore supply will run out in the next couple of hundred years if the consumption rate stays the same. As supplies decrease, demand will only increase, which is why it’s so important that several countries – including the UK and South Korea – are looking for more opportunities to invest in mining tungsten ores.
Currently, the worldwide market value of tungsten is predicted to hit $8.5 billion in 2025 (up from $3.5 billion in 2017). The value of tungsten and the need to explore more sources are only likely to increase in the coming years, but for the moment, it’s easy enough to find reliable suppliers of tungsten parts in the UK at competitive prices.