Tungsten Mining: Where is Tungsten Found

How is Tungsten Mined

Understanding the Process of Tungsten Mining

Tungsten mining involves several key stages, beginning with exploration to locate potential deposits. Once a promising site is identified, exploratory drilling and sampling are conducted to estimate the size and grade of the ore body. If results are favorable, the site may then enter the mine development phase which involves building access roads, processing facilities, and other necessary infrastructure.

For hard rock tungsten deposits, underground mining methods like cut-and-fill stoping are commonly used. Tunnels are driven into the ore body, which is then drilled and blasted. The broken ore gets transported to the surface for processing. For softer sedimentary deposits, open pit mining may be utilized. With open pit mining, benches are dug deeper and deeper into the deposit as material gets excavated.

Once the ore reaches the processing plant, it goes through a series of crushing and grinding until the tungsten minerals are liberated from the waste rock. The ground ore then undergoes separation and concentration through methods like gravity separation, magnetic separation, and froth flotation. This produces an intermediate concentrate containing 65-85% WO3 (tungsten trioxide).

Further chemical processing and roasting are required to remove impurities and convert the tungsten concentrates into higher value ammonium paratungstate (APT) or tungsten oxides. These products are then sent to downstream manufacturers that turn tungsten into end-use products and powders.

Advancements in technology are improving productivity and efficiency across the mining process. More powerful and targeted drilling rigs can better detect ore deposits. GPS and automation allow mining equipment to extract material more precisely. Online monitoring systems track processing performance. And newer separation methods like sensor-based sorting can help recover more tungsten.

Understanding the Open-Pit Mining Method

Open-pit mining, despite being relatively rare for tungsten extraction, is still one of the most common methods used when the conditions are right. This method involves excavating large surface pits to reach the tungsten ore deposits beneath, presenting a stark contrast to the underground mining typically associated with this metal. The process begins by identifying suitable locations where tungsten ores, such as scheelite and wolframite, are present in substantial quantities. These ores are often found in veins where volcanic activity has penetrated cracks in the Earth's crust, particularly in younger mountain belts such as the Alps, the Himalayas, and the circum-Pacific belt.

The scale of open-pit mining operations can vary greatly, but they rarely produce more than 2000 tonnes of ore per day. The size of the deposit, its quality, and location play crucial roles in determining the quantity of ore that can be extracted. For instance, larger deposits naturally yield more ore, while high-quality deposits provide ore with higher tungsten content. The location of the deposit also matters — deposits closer to the surface are easier to mine, while those located in steeply-dipping lodes, pipes, or sheeted vein systems may necessitate the use of open-pit mining despite the challenges it presents.

Other key factors influencing the amount of ore extracted include the availability of equipment and the physical characteristics of the tungsten itself. Not all tungsten ore is created equal, with some forms being more difficult to extract than others. Tungsten, when combined in mineral forms with manganese, iron, or calcium, requires specific extraction methods. Thus, the type of tungsten ore at hand significantly impacts the extraction process.

Lastly, access to advanced mining equipment and technology can dramatically increase the efficiency and effectiveness of open-pit mining operations. From drilling equipment to machinery for transporting the excavated ore, every piece of equipment plays a vital role in ensuring the success of the extraction process. As technology continues to advance, the capabilities and potential of open-pit mining for tungsten extraction are likely to evolve further, potentially making this method even more viable in the future.

Despite its complexities, open-pit mining remains an indispensable part of the tungsten extraction process under the right circumstances. Understanding the intricacies of this method can provide valuable insights into the extensive efforts involved in bringing this vital element from the depths of the earth to the wide array of industries that rely on it.

What was tungsten originally called?

Tungsten was originally known as wolfram. The name "wolfram" originated from the mineral wolframite, which is one of the main ores of tungsten. The word ""wolfram"" itself has an interesting history. It comes from the Swedish words ""wolf"" (meaning wolf) and ""ram"" (meaning foam), referring to the difficulties miners faced when extracting tungsten from the ore.

tungsten history

Tungsten Mining Methods

Underground Mining Method

As we venture deeper into the intriguing world of tungsten extraction, we now turn our attention to the underground mining method. An alternative to open-pit mining, this approach involves extracting mineral ore by creating tunnels or shafts deep into the Earth's crust. It's a fascinating yet complex process, laden with technical requirements and cost implications.

The Process and Costs of Underground Mining

Underground mining for tungsten is often accomplished through what is referred to as 'slashing out the ore.' This process entails drilling directly into the tungsten ore deposit to carve out large chunks of the ore. Another prevalent technique is the room-and-pillar mining method, which involves creating rooms within the ore while leaving pillars intact to support the roof. As these techniques suggest, underground mining is a labor-intensive process, requiring not only skilled manpower but also specialized equipment. The costs associated with underground mining include operational expenses such as labor and equipment, as well as capital costs for mine development and infrastructure.

When is Underground Mining Chosen Over Open-Pit Mining?

Given its higher costs and complexity, one might wonder why underground mining is chosen over open-pit mining. The answer lies in the unique circumstances surrounding each tungsten deposit. If the tungsten ore deposit is located near the surface, open-pit mining is generally the preferred choice due to its lower cost and simpler execution. However, if the deposit is found deep underground or in a location where surface disturbance must be minimized, like in environmentally sensitive areas, underground mining becomes the preferred method.

Major Countries Using Underground Mining for Tungsten

Underground mining methods are used worldwide, but certain countries stand out as major tungsten producers using this method. Russia, for instance, is the second-largest producer of tungsten globally, with regions such as Chelyabinsk, Altai, and Khabarovsk being the primary tungsten-producing areas. Similarly, Vietnam and Canada – the third and fourth largest producers respectively – also extensively use underground mining for tungsten extraction. Ontario is Canada's major tungsten hub, while Quang Ninh and Ha Tinh are Vietnam's leading tungsten regions.

Major Tungsten Mines in the World

As one of the rarest elements on Earth, tungsten is predominantly obtained from mines located in specific regions around the world. In this article, we will explore some of the major tungsten mines globally and their significance in the global supply chain.

1. China: Undoubtedly, China is the largest producer of tungsten in the world. The country accounts for over 80% of the global tungsten supply. With its rich reserves and advanced mining techniques, China has established itself as the powerhouse of tungsten production. The country has several major tungsten mines located in Jiangxi, Hunan, and Guangdong provinces. Jiangxi province, in particular, boasts several large-scale mines, including the famous Shizhuyuan Mine in Hunan province. Shizhuyuan is one of the largest tungsten deposits in the world and has been in operation since the 1950s. It produces both primary and secondary tungsten products, making it a crucial player in the global tungsten market.

2. Russia: Russia is another significant player in the global tungsten market. The country's primary tungsten mine is the Tyrnyauz Mine in the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic. This mine has been in operation for several decades and continues to contribute to the overall tungsten production in Russia. Despite not matching China's output, Russia plays a vital role in meeting the global demand for tungsten.

3. Canada: Canada is home to the Cantung Mine, one of the largest tungsten mines outside of China. Located in the Northwest Territories, the Cantung Mine has been operational since the mid-1960s. It is jointly owned by the North American Tungsten Corporation Ltd. and the Korea Tungsten Company. The mine has substantial tungsten reserves and plays a crucial role in diversifying the global tungsten supply chain.

4. Bolivia: The Bolivian government has been investing in its tungsten mining industry to increase production and boost the country's economy. The major tungsten mine in Bolivia is the Huanuni Mine, located in the Oruro Department. This mine has significant tungsten reserves and plays a vital role in meeting the regional demand for the metal.

5. Vietnam: Vietnam has emerged as a prominent tungsten producer in recent years. The country's primary tungsten mine is the Nui Phao Mine, located in the Thai Nguyen Province. Owned by Masan Resources, this mine has substantial tungsten reserves and is known for its high-grade ore. Vietnam's increasing tungsten production has made it an important player in the global market.

6. Austria: Austria is renowned for its tungsten mining industry, with the Mittersill Mine being the most notable. Located in the Salzburg state, the Mittersill Mine is operated by the Wolfram Bergbau und Hutten AG. The mine has been producing tungsten since the early 1970s and continues to contribute significantly to Austria's mineral resources.

7. Portugal: Portugal is home to the Panasqueira Mine, one of the oldest tungsten mines in Europe. Located in the central part of the country, the Panasqueira Mine has been operational since the 1890s. The mine is known for its unique mineralogy, including wolframite, which is the primary ore of tungsten. It continues to be an essential source of tungsten in Europe.

Where is tungsten mostly mined?

The mining of tungsten is a global endeavor, with the metal primarily obtained from the minerals scheelite and wolframite. Other tungsten-bearing minerals include ferberite and huebnerite. The key mining locations for this critical metal span continents, from China and Russia to Portugal, Austria, and Bolivia.

The Los Santos Mine in Spain is known for its high-quality tungsten concentrate and has been in operation since the early 1980s. It is operated by the mining company Barruecopardo and plays a significant role in Europe's tungsten production.

Brazil is another country with notable tungsten mining operations. The Serra da Arara deposit, located in the state of Bahia, is the largest tungsten mine in the country. Operated by the Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração (CBMM), this mine has substantial reserves of tungsten and plays a vital role in Brazil's mining industry.

The Hemerdon Mine in the United Kingdom, also known as the Drakelands Mine, is a recently reopened tungsten mine. It was closed in the 1940s but reopened in 2015 due to the increasing demand for tungsten. The Hemerdon Mine is operated by Wolf Minerals Limited and is expected to become one of the largest tungsten mines in the world. It has substantial tungsten reserves and is a valuable asset for the UK's mining industry.

These major tungsten mines ensure a steady supply of this vital metal, supporting industrial advancements and technological innovations across the globe.

Key Locations for Tungsten Mining

China, however, holds the lion's share, accounting for about 80% of the world's tungsten supply. Tungsten's importance extends beyond its physical properties. It plays a crucial role in strategic, consumer, and commercial applications. From incandescent light bulb filaments and X-ray tubes to electrodes in gas tungsten arc welding, superalloys, and radiation shielding, tungsten's uses are as diverse as they are essential. Its hardness and high density also make it suitable for military applications, particularly in penetrating projectiles. In the realm of consumer goods, tungsten has found its way into jewelry, sports equipment, and even research into nanowires, promising exciting developments in materials science and technology.

Australia is another important location for tungsten mining. The country's largest tungsten mine, the Dolphin mine, is located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The mine has been in operation since the 1940s and is known for its high-grade tungsten ore. Australia also has other tungsten deposits, such as the Mount Carbine project in Queensland and the Watershed project in Tasmania. With increasing demand for tungsten, Australia's tungsten mining sector is expected to see further development and expansion.

Is tungsten mined in the USA?

In the vast expanse of the United States, tungsten deposits are scattered across numerous states, with significant deposits occurring in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Utah, and Washington. These deposits vary in size, from smaller prospects to vast mines containing tons of this invaluable mineral. Tungsten ore is typically derived from several types of mineral deposits, including skarns, veins, and porphyry deposits.

Tracking these deposits is no small task. It requires diligent work from numerous agencies, notably the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and its USMIN Mineral Deposit Database. The database reports on the largest 10 percent of U.S. deposits, or mines and deposits with more than 215 metric tons of tungsten metal. Notably, this data release excludes smaller deposits and prospects in states like Connecticut, Maine, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Although these smaller deposits may not make the cutoff for the database, they still contribute to the nation's overall tungsten resources.

Despite the presence of these substantial deposits, the United States has seen minimal production of tungsten since price crashes in the 1980s. This trend has left the country dependent on imports and government stockpiles to supplement American tungsten supply. According to USGS data, the U.S. government sold approximately 3,390 metric tons of tungsten out of its stockpiles since 2017, acting as a stopgap measure to meet industry needs.

Why is this important? Tungsten is an incredibly durable metal that plays a vital role in a broad range of American industrial sectors. The compound tungsten carbide, which is roughly twice as strong as steel, is extensively used in mining, construction, and metal-working industries. Its toughness makes it ideal for drill bits, saw blades, wear plates, and other high-intensity applications. Moreover, tungsten's strength at high temperatures makes it a crucial material in many high-temperature applications, such as heating elements, lightbulb filaments, rocket engine nozzles, and TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding.

Documenting and tracking these tungsten deposits across the United States is more than just a record-keeping exercise. It is a critical step towards understanding the country's own resources and reducing dependency on foreign tungsten supplies. As we progress further into the 21st century, the importance of achieving mineral independence becomes increasingly paramount, and tungsten deposits play a significant role in this journey.

Unveiling Tungsten Mining in the United States

Tungsten mining in the United States has a long history, with the first discoveries made in the late 1800s. Major tungsten deposits and mines are located across several western states including California, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Alaska.

In the early 20th century, the United States was the world's largest producer of tungsten. However, after cheaper tungsten became available from China and other countries in the 1980s, the U.S. tungsten mining industry declined significantly.

Today, the U.S. has a minor role in global tungsten supply, producing only around 1% of the world's tungsten. The U.S. is heavily reliant on imported tungsten to meet domestic demand.

Some of the major tungsten mines still operating in the U.S. include the Pine Creek mine in California, the Lost River mine in Alaska, and the Urad mine in Colorado. Several other mines are currently inactive but contain substantial tungsten resources.

Reviving domestic tungsten production faces challenges including high costs compared to foreign competitors, permitting issues, and environmental regulations. However, tungsten is considered a critical mineral important for national security and high-tech industries.

Environmental Impact of Tungsten Mining

Tungsten is a valuable metal that is widely used in various industries due to its exceptional properties. It has a high melting point, excellent strength, and good electrical conductivity, making it an essential component in the production of various products, including light bulbs, electronics, and heavy machinery. However, the environmental impact of tungsten mining cannot be ignored.

One of the most significant environmental concerns associated with tungsten mining is the destruction of natural habitats. Tungsten deposits are often found in areas rich in biodiversity, such as forests and rivers. Mining activities require the clearing of vegetation and the excavation of large areas, leading to the destruction of habitats for countless plant and animal species. This loss of biodiversity can have long-term consequences for ecosystems and disrupt delicate ecological balance.

Furthermore, tungsten mining can result in water pollution. The process of extracting tungsten involves the use of chemicals, such as cyanide and sulfuric acid, which are often used to separate the metal from the surrounding rock. These chemicals can contaminate nearby water sources, leading to the pollution of rivers and groundwater. This pollution not only affects aquatic life but also poses a significant risk to human health, as contaminated water can enter the local water supply.

Another environmental impact of tungsten mining is soil degradation. The process of mining requires the removal of large quantities of soil, which is then piled up in waste heaps. These waste heaps can leach toxic chemicals into the soil, rendering it infertile and unfit for future agricultural use. Additionally, the removal of topsoil can lead to erosion, further degrading the land and causing sedimentation in nearby water bodies.

Air pollution is also a concern when it comes to tungsten mining. Dust and particulate matter are generated during the mining and processing of tungsten ore, which can be carried by wind over long distances. These particles can have detrimental effects on air quality, leading to respiratory problems for both humans and wildlife. Additionally, the release of greenhouse gases during the mining process contributes to climate change, further exacerbating environmental issues.

To mitigate the environmental impact of tungsten mining, several measures can be taken. One approach is the implementation of sustainable mining practices, such as reclamation and rehabilitation of mined areas. This involves restoring the land to its original state or repurposing it for other uses, such as reforestation or agriculture. Additionally, the use of cleaner technologies and alternative chemicals can help reduce pollution and minimize the carbon footprint of tungsten mining operations.

Regulatory frameworks and strict enforcement of environmental laws are also crucial in ensuring responsible mining practices. Governments and industry stakeholders should work together to establish and enforce guidelines that promote sustainable mining and protect the environment. This includes proper waste management, monitoring of water quality, and regular environmental impact assessments.

While tungsten is a valuable resource with numerous industrial applications, its mining comes at a significant environmental cost. The destruction of habitats, water pollution, soil degradation, and air pollution are among the adverse impacts associated with tungsten mining. However, through the adoption of sustainable practices and strict environmental regulations, it is possible to mitigate these impacts and ensure a more responsible and environmentally friendly approach to tungsten mining.