What is tantalum, the rare metal found in Sutlej?

Context- A team of researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Ropar has found the presence of tatalum, a rare metal, in the Sutlej river sand in Punjab.

The discovery has been made by a team headed by Dr Resmi Sebastian, assistant professor at the institute’s Civil Engineering Department. According to experts, the presence of tantalum is significant not only for Punjab but also India as the metal is widely used in electronics and semiconductors.

(Credits- americanelements.com)

What is tantalum?

  • Tantalum is a rare metal with the atomic number 73 — the number of protons found in one atom of the element. It’s grey, heavy, very hard, and one of the most corrosion-resistant metals in use today.
  • It possesses high corrosion resistance because when exposed to air, it forms an oxide layer that is extremely difficult to remove, even when it interacts with strong and hot acid environments.
  • When pure, tantalum is ductile, meaning it can be stretched, pulled, or drawn into a thin wire or thread without breaking. Moreover, it “is almost completely immune to chemical attack at temperatures below 150°C, and is attacked only by hydrofluoric acid, acidic solutions containing the fluoride ion, and free sulphur trioxide,”
  • Notably, tantalum also has an extremely high melting point, exceeded only by tungsten and rhenium.

When was tantalum first discovered?

  • Tantalum was discovered by Anders Gustaf Ekenberg, a Swedish chemist, in 1802 in minerals obtained from Ytterby, Sweden. Initially, it was thought Ekenberg had found only a different form of niobium, an element that is chemically similar to tantalum.
  • “The issue was finally settled in 1866 when, Jean Charles Galissard de Marignac, a Swiss chemist, proved that tantalum and niobium were two distinct elements,”.

How did tantalum get its name?

  • The rare metal has been named after a Greek mythological figure Tantalus, the rich but wicked king of a town above Mount Sipylus in Anatolia. Tantalus is best known for the terrible punishment he received from Zeus after the former tried to serve his son at a feast with the gods.
  • The king was banished to the underworld, where he forever stood in a pool of water with clusters of fresh fruit hanging overhead. Whenever he tried to drink the water, it receded. Whenever he tried to pick the fruit, the branches drew back.
  • This name was selected because of the insolubility of tantalum in acids; thus, when placed in the midst of acids, it is incapable of taking any of them up.

What are the uses of tantalum?

  • Tantalum is most prominently used in the electronic sector. The capacitors made from tantalum are capable of storing more electricity in smaller sizes without much leakage than any other type of capacitor.
  • This makes them ideal for use in portable electronic devices such as smartphones, laptops, and digital cameras.
  • As tantalum has a high melting point, it is frequently used as a substitute for platinum, which is more expensive. The rare metal is also used to make components for chemical plants, nuclear power plants, aeroplanes and missiles.
  • Tantalum does not react with bodily fluids and is used to make surgical equipment and implants, like artificial joints, according to the US Department of Energy.
  • A composite consisting of tantalum carbide (TaC) and graphite is one of the hardest materials known and is used on the cutting edges of high-speed machine tools.

Conclusion- The rare earth elements (REE) are a set of seventeen metallic elements. These include the fifteen lanthanides on the periodic table plus scandium and yttrium. Compounds containing rare earths have diverse applications in electrical and electronic components, lasers, glass, magnetic materials, and industrial processes.

Syllabus- GS-1; Resources

Source- Indian Express


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