A tiny tin miner cashes in on 'metal of the future'

Once considered a pesky side product of tin mining, the element known as tantalum is dubbed by some resource experts as the "metal of the future." A key component in such products as modern computers and the latest jet engines, tantalum is turning a humble Australian mining company into a household word among the world's high-technology Titans.

Last year the firm of Greenbushes Tin NL uncovered what may be the world's largest deposit of tantalite, an ore containing tantalum, in a quiet village 150 miles south of here. Almost with one quick turn of the spade it has transformed Australia into a major source of the heavy blackish mineral.

"The world used to think of Australia and think uranium," says salt-and-pepper bearded John McSweeney, a Greenbushes director. "They may now think of Australia as a major tantalum supplier."

The space-age metal is in hot demand among computer, aerospace, and telecommunications firms. What makes it valuable are its special properties: It has a melting point above 5,200 degree F. but can withstand temperatures as low as a minus 330 F. It also resists corrosion.

For Greenbushes the discovery could not have come at a more opportune time. World demand for the metal will likely grow 5 to 8 percent a year into the mid- 1980s, while known supplies are decreasing.

Use of tantalum in one area -- as an alloy in jet engines -- is expected to jump some 60 percent over the next five years. It is also increasingly being snapped up by computer and communications firms for making a special breed of capacitors. Other uses: automotive electronics equipment, drilling tools, and die parts.

"It will continue to be an important metal in the future," says Williams A. Owczarski, manager of technical planning for Pratt & Whitney Aircraft in the United States.

About half the world's production now comes from tin slags in Thailand, while the bulk of the primary tantalite -- some 25 percent -- comes from the Tanco mine in Manitoba, Canada. Other suppliers are Brazil and Zaire as well as dozens of backyard mining sites around the world, small enough to be coined "shovel and gunnysack" operations.

Yet Tanco's reserves are likely to be exhausted within five to ten years, and the slag piles of the Far East are shrinking as well. The tightening supply picture is reflected in the price of the metal. It bounded from $9 (US) per pound five years ago to more than $100 in 1980. Future supplies have become worrisome enough that the US government recently placed tantalum on "priority" status in its strategic stockpile list. The US currently has no known deposits of the material.

Greenbushes, at present a supplier of about 7 percent of the world's market, will go a long way toward plugging much of the future gap. By 1985 the Australian company is expected to feed one-quarter of the world's market.

All this will come from its new-found deposit in the town of Greenbushes (population 200), from which the company draws its name. The boomerang-shaped ore body is believed to contain the equivalent of 21 million pounds of tantalum, plus a side deposit of nearly 24,000 tons of tin. Estimated worth: over $2 billion at current prices. But exploratory drilling continues, and company officials believe the deposit may yield as much as four times that amount.

Up to now Greenbushes has produced only tantalite as a byproduct of its tin operation. But in the next few years the Cinderella company will pump some $69 million ($60 million Australian) into new hard-rock mining operations and a treatment plant.

Expected output of the mineral this year is about 180,000 pounds. By 1985, once the underground operation is in peak production, output will likely top 800 ,000 pounds a year.

The company has experienced a roller-coaster existence for most of its 17 -year history. But now, within a few short and fortuitous months, the firm has embarked on an ambitious scheme to help meet the world's thirst for tantalum. It already has vaulted from near obscurity to about 60th on the list of Australian companies in market capitalization.

"I don't think you will be able to think of Australia in the next five years without thinking of the position we hold in the world tantalum m arket," Mr. McSweeney says.

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