Great discussion! From what I understand, there is not a perfect replacement for tantalum, at least for capacitors. Until prices went up it was the most efficienct and least expensive element for the technology.
Michael Kirschner made a point in a recent Webinar that might be applicable: efforts by the electronics industry to replace lead in solders has been a decades-long and expensive project and the replacements still don't work as leaded solders. It is very difficult to make substitutions, particularly when something works.
If there was a way to make the politics around tantalum less explosive--and I'm not saying there is, or that the electronics industry should spearhead the effort--the material itself is still a good solution.
I agree these metals are used in almost all areas of our lives. As consumers we need to find ways to use less of the products which translates to less use of these materials, recycle what we take, and manufacturers to continue to research and develop other more efficient parts that are not using rare metals for electronics.
I hope I am not sounding like Al Gore's spokes person!
All of these are very valid points. Obviously the main use of Tantalum is making capacitors and high power resistors but its also an additive in many metals to increase strength and corrosion resistance.
This is also used in dental and surgical instruments and implants because there is no immune exposure.
So the increase in cost and availability has a wide spread affect on many global products. While semiconductor parts can help replace tantalum with the capacitors and resistors (the availability and cost is becoming much more prevalent), the other issue at hand is what can be done to offset the rising cost of using this element as an additive.
You are right about China's silent move on rare elements. Cote d’Ivoire, Sao Tome and Principe, Gambia,Malawi, and Tanzania (un familiar countries?), all have Tantalum ores in sizable amounts, and guess who is already their mining or funding mining - China!
DRC may be the obvious and the most unstable country for mining, but China has a nack for finding the less beaten path and the money to explore new resources before others know what's happening. I won't be supprised to hear that China controls (directly or indrectly) the Tantalum mining too.
Here we are. Since few years ago thanks to large volume on the market, Chinese finance reached very high positive cash flow; it has allowed to Chinese economy to invest a lot in REEs and then to realize huge profits. Take in consideration that based on metalprices.com reports (source:www.metalprices.com) tantalum's price boosted 120% in one year and this process are going to support new investments (from their side) in other segments. Furthermore it has started a new "indirect" process: western firms are going to appoint chinese executives with the purpose to better promote and enable business relationships between West and China. Will benefits be fifty-fifty just to balance profits for each other?
The gentleman's name doesn't ring a bell (clue me in!), but the trend you mentioned does. Although tantalum is not an REE, it is covered in a DOE report just released on REEs. China has slowly, and up until quietly, been buying up struggling mining operations around the world. According to the DOE, China controls something like 95% of REEs, so it's not a stretch to imagine they saw the tantalum trend coming as well.
@Stochastic Execursion: one of the key points is exactly what you have mentioned. Anyway it seems in the short term there are not strong alternatives to tantalum for the facts several manifactures have to customize their production chains to new materials and it could not easy (think of for example to aircraft engines, one of the most important tantalum application) and quite expensive.
@Barbara: due to extreme important needs satisfied by tantalum and political concerns on DCR, it seems biggest player on the segment is coming; Cina is acquiring across the globe huge % of tantalum production. Whole brasilian production is owned by them right now. Rhodia (leader in the development and production of specialty chemicals) appointed Mr Hua Du as executive, does it ring a bell?
Tantalum has unique properties that makes it very economical as a basis for certain passive components in power supplies. That said, IMHO product managers are asking for trouble when they depend on a material with such limited abundance. This is especially so when the material comes from trouble spots in the global south.
Unavailability of tantalum means bigger power supplies that are more expensive and less energy-efficient to make. It's possible that new technology, e.g. semiconductor or composites, could step up to the plate (har, that's capacitive plate).
Coordinated trade barriers could take the pressure off companies who wish to stay out of what is looking like the blood tantalum market.
Tantalum from now until June 2011 is a key topic for any THREAT slide in a SWOT analysis. Any of you who read this who work with me know that. The supply chain for processed tantalite as a whole (electronics, wear parts, curring tools, superalloys, targets, medical implants) is placing great emphasis on its survival past June 2011 based upon the actions of one mine. Dont play it down. Its important because its all connected. Its just a matter of time before one of these rare earth elements messes up the high tech supply chain. And people smarter than me know this as well- financial types who trade in the new palladium and platinum ETFs; and what's this? REE ETFs Australia- how interesting; and fundamentally dangerous to the industry. Tantalum, neodymium and many of the PGMs and lanthacides need close monitoring by the supply chain; and a concerted effort to make sure enough exists for the all the industries and nations that need it. Anything else would be remiss. Id suggest that any senior level guys who read this throw a firecracker in their senior supply chain manager's office and then ask what their take on the while REE thing is and how it might impact the company over the next decade. Oce they give you an answer, ask what the guys at NASA ask- "What's your plan "B" Gordo, what's your plan "B?"
Another hurdle legitimate electronic companies must scale in the difficult task of ensuring their supply chain is flexible, adaptive and corruption-free. It's not enough that companies must manage a tight enough schedule now they have to police their raw material supply chain. Governments are supposed to scrub the system, not companies. It is when governments fail in their responsibilities or believe their counterparts in other parts of the globe are not doing their duties that the task of policing the supply chain is passed on to companies. But are these companies really up to the task?
EBN Dialogue enables and encourages you to participate in live chats with notable leaders and luminaries. Not only editors and journalists, but the entire EBN community is able to comment and ask questions. Listed below are upcoming and archived chats.
Thailand Stages a Comeback Join EBN contributor Jennifer Baljko on Thursday August 23, 2012, at 11:00 a.m. EST for a live chat on how electronic manufacturers in Thailand have shored up their supply chain to reduce the impact of future natural disasters.
Microsoft Surface: Potential Winners & Losers What are the implications for the electronics industry supply chain of Microsoft Corp.'s decision to launch its own tablet PC? Join industry veteran and EE Times' systems and OEM expert Rick Merritt on Tuesday, July 3, at 12:00 pm EDT for a Live Chat on this subject.
Join EBN contributor Jennifer Baljko on Thursday August 23, 2012, at 11:00 a.m. EST for a live chat on how electronic manufacturers in Thailand have shored up their supply chain to reduce the impact of future natural disasters.
Peter Drucker famously said "Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window." Yet in the razor's-edge world of electronics—with a lean supply chain and just-in-time demands—the need to know the future is vital.
While no one really can accurately predict the future, we can take guidance from another Drucker saying which is the best way to predict the future is to create it.
You've heard the saying "the No. 1 supply chain risk is your people." That hasn't always been the case. But today's complex global supply chain requires a new type of multitalented employee. It's one who understands, finance, marketing, economics, is savvy with technology, graceful with relationships and can think analytically.
Where are these people? Are universities properly preparing the next generation supply chain professionals? How do train your existing workforce for these new, demanding positions?
Brian Fuller, editor-in-chief of EBN, will lead a 60-minute Avnet Velocity panel discussion that will ask and answer these and other questions swirling around today's supply-chain talent challenges.