A Glance Back at Tungsten Ca. 2007, Courtesy Of ITIA
The International Tungsten Industry Association (ITIA) is an esteemed organization that our colleagues at Nippon Tungsten have been a member of for many years. While we at Metal Cutting are experts in how to cut tungsten and in using it to create precision parts from wrought rod and fine wire, the ITIA is more focused on powder and tonnage aspects of tungsten.
However, the highly respected ITIA is of interest to anyone in the tungsten business, where unique properties including the high melting point of tungsten (6192°F, or 3422°C), its low vapor pressure (temperatures > 3000°F, or > 1650°C), and its high tensile strength have made this material useful in a wide range of applications.
In fact, when we came across an old ITIA newsletter article called “A Family’s Day with Tungsten,” just for fun we decided to do an update of sorts. More than a decade after the piece was written, here’s our look at how many tungsten uses circa 2007, as experienced by a theoretical family of four people (a father, a mother, and two children), have stood the test of time.
At Home in the Morning
That day in 2007 began with the dad waking up very early (and quietly, to not disturb his wife and kids) to the gentle vibration of his mobile phone under his pillow.
The type of phone pictured in the article is long gone — replaced by the slimmest of smartphones. However, the mechanism of a tiny tungsten part rotated by an electric micro-motor inside the phone to create the vibration is one of the tungsten uses that is still utilized today.
As the dad tiptoed around the house, he noted various lighting, including the soft glow of the bedside lamp using a 15 watt incandescent bulb with a tungsten filament and the bathroom’s bright halogen spotlights with high-performance tungsten wires.
The reality today is that incandescent bulbs with filament wire are waning, and even CFLs are fast ceding to the efficiency of LED lighting. (As much as wire filament is one of those tungsten uses that is good for our business, we are not among the LED deniers!)
Tungsten Uses on the Road
Finally in his car and on the way to the airport, the dad switched on his window de-icer, which used tungsten filament wires embedded in the front and rear windshields.
This application never really caught on in automobiles made in the United States, but it was used widely in Europe. Moreover, Metal Cutting today provides tungsten filament wire for this purpose in aerospace windshields.
The dad noted that his 10-cylinder car engine ran surprisingly smoothly for a diesel; this was due to almost 22 pounds (10 kg) of tungsten parts placed around the crankshaft to reduce vibration. That thinking has gone the way of 10-cylinder diesels in general, in favor of far lighter and more energy-efficient automobiles.
Narrowly avoiding a collision on the highway, dad quickly leaned on his car horn — an application that, then and now, requires the flow of electric current and depends on switches made of pure tungsten, which in turn depend on expertise in how to cut tungsten.
In the pre-dawn, a thin layer of tungsten bronze on his rearview mirror reduced the glare of the headlights behind him. This, too, is one of the tungsten uses that is utilized today.
As it began to snow, the dad thought of his brother-in-law who lived in Finland, where tires studded with cemented tungsten carbide were — and still are — useful in icy winter weather, where local government allows them. The studs’ hardness and abrasion resistance help to prevent cars from skidding.
Of course, today’s automobiles include an ever-growing range of active safety technology designed to improve both safety and performance.
As he neared the airport, the dad saw cargo trucks with labels saying they were equipped with modern emission reduction equipment. DeNOx catalysts, used then and now on many truck diesel engines, reduce nitrogen oxide concentration in exhaust.
These catalysts are made from a tungsten containing ceramic — two materials that work well together, given the ultra-high melting point of tungsten.
In addition, perfectly sized holes in the diesel injectors for these trucks are made using Metal Cutting’s own tungsten electrodes. We grind the holes to diameter tolerances of 0.5 microns to maximize full combustion and reduce particulate emissions.
Tungsten Uses in the Air
Boarding an airplane and finding his seat near one of the wings, the dad noticed the engine turbines. The turbine blades in the engine’s high-temperature zone were and are still made of tungsten containing super-alloys — another application that benefits from the high melting point of tungsten.
During takeoff, he looked out the window and noticed the wing flaps and ailerons at work. In 2007 and today, tungsten heavy metal counterweights are part of the mechanism that controls the force exerted on the flaps.
Ironically, while today we now pay for all luggage and must pay extra for overweight bags, airplanes themselves are filled with heavy counterweights made from tungsten heavy alloys. However, these are precision engineered for specific locations and safety purposes, so we’re not complaining.
Dad brought out his laptop and iPod to pass the time and prepare for his business meeting. While these electronic devices have evolved extraordinarily in the past decade-plus, tungsten is still integral to their manufacture. For instance:
- Printed circuit boards inside the devices are machined using cemented carbide routers and micro-drills.
- Integrated circuit chips use tungsten conducting wires or plugs and tungsten silicide gate material.
- Tungsten and molybdenum alloys are used in the production of device displays.
- Probes made from tungsten or tungsten rhenium are used to test each and every one of the integrated circuit chips at the wafer level — ensuring that subsequent value-added production is using only those chips that work.
Tungsten in Medical and Dental Applications
For the mother of the family, the ITIA story detailed some important appointments that featured tungsten uses in medical devices. For example, she made a trip to a hospital for a computer tomography (CT) scan of her spine, to try to determine the cause of some long-time back pain.
Although magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is probably more widely used today, then and now a CT device could generate 3D images using X-ray tubes that contain an electrode made of tungsten, as well as a rotating anode made of tungsten or a tungsten rhenium alloy. Additionally, tungsten is still used in the shielding of the entire CT machine.
After a good report from the CT scan, showing no serious problem, the mom headed to an appointment at the dentist’s office. There, a panorama x-ray of all her teeth was taken — and once again, tungsten anodes played a part in the x-ray machine.
Calcium tungstate was used as fluorescent material in the x-ray film. Additionally, the heavy protective apron that the mom wore was made of tungsten powder dispersed in latex, which shielded her against radiation and was more eco-friendly than lead.
Today, digital imaging is more prevalent than the use of traditional x-ray film at the dentist’s office, but basic x-ray technology remains the same. Interestingly, here in the United States our dentists still use protective aprons made with lead. But, wouldn’t it be great if they switched to the more environmentally friendly tungsten?
Returning to 2007, there was some bad news for mom: She needed a root canal! Most of the drills used by the dentist for cleaning and shaping were made of fine-grained, extremely sharp edged cemented carbide. True then and still true now, this drill material produces less friction, which means less heat and less pain for the patient — finally, some good news for mom.
Tungsten Uses Throughout the School Day
The family’s two children set off to school that morning via train. Its engine contained high-voltage switches with contact zones consisting of copper tungsten parts, which were resistant to spark erosion thanks to the high melting point of tungsten.
Cemented carbide drawing dies were used to manufacture the train’s overhead contact line, as well as all the wires in the engine. The thin copper sheet parts of the engine and the transformers were die cut using cemented carbide tools. Today, these tungsten uses are still standard.
Studying for a physics test during the train ride, one of the kids read about the use of tungsten in the first wall materials for nuclear fusion reactors. The project, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), was in the planning stages then and is STILL in the construction stages now. (You can read about the project at www.iter.org.)
Looking out the train windows, the children saw an open pit coal mine, which used huge toothed shovels and other tools and systems relying on cemented tungsten carbide tube fittings. While the economics of coal have not been kind to that industry in recent years, today such equipment is still used in different types of mining and still utilizes tungsten carbide components.
When they got to school, the son realized he forgot some of his supplies and asked to borrow a pad of paper and a ballpoint pen from his sister.
Of course, today laptops and mobile devices have taken the place of pad and pen for many students. But in 2007 and now, tungsten coated rolls are used in the manufacture of paper, and cemented carbide knives are used for accurately cutting the sheets of a writing pad.
In addition, tungsten in the form of corrosion-resistant cemented carbide still forms the ball of a ballpoint pen — precisely designed to provide just the right surface roughness to carry enough ink and roll on the paper without sliding.
Tungsten at Leisure
After a day that included a CT scan at a hospital followed by a trip to the dentist’s office and a root canal, the mother of the family finally caught a break: She had a date to meet some friends for a round of golf after her appointments were over.
She checked her watch — a gift from her husband, it was a highly scratch resistant model made from tungsten carbide, with a mechanical movement and a tungsten heavy alloy part for winding the watch automatically. With luck she may still be wearing that same watch today.
The golf outing gave the mother a chance to practice with her new driver, which had tungsten heavy alloy screws for enhancing performance, so she could improve even more on her 18 handicap. She was glad for the new golf balls her husband gave her for her birthday; containing a tungsten shell in one of the outer layers inside the ball, when hit correctly these balls allowed the golfer to put great spin on her shots.
Since it was cold and the ground was hard, she was also grateful for the cemented carbide spikes on her golf shoes. Today, tungsten uses such as these are among many other technological advantages that golfers are always pursuing in their quest for perfection.
Meanwhile, after school the daughter of the family and some of her friends went for a jog, wearing weights on their hands and legs to increase the efficiency of their training. Now, as in 2007, such weights are frequently made of tungsten, with its high density providing weightiness in a compact package, and rely on companies such as Metal Cutting for our expertise in how to cut tungsten.
That afternoon back in 2007, the son met some friends at a youth club, where they played darts using professional-style darts made of tungsten heavy metal. This allowed (and still allows) for a slim design and a stable trajectory when the projectiles are tossed.
Tungsten Uses in General Industry
Throughout the day, the family’s story called out a wide range of other tungsten uses in general industry — examples that are still fully relevant now. These include:
- Tungsten wires used for charged (corona) wires in laser printers and copiers
- Cemented tungsten carbide tools used for machining car engine blocks and titanium parts for airplane wing spars and landing gear
- Polycrystalline diamond on tungsten carbide inserts used to cut carbon-fiber reinforced plastic for airplane parts such as wing shells
- Heavy-duty road construction machinery equipped with cemented carbide chisels and other tungsten-based components
- High-performance electric transformer and power station switches made of copper tungsten
- A woodchipper utilizing cemented carbide knives, which are more wear resistant than steel
Back Home at the End of a “Day with Tungsten”
As the family came together at home toward the end of day, there were still more tungsten uses hiding in plain sight. For instance, mom and daughter hung some new curtains that were fireproof due to embedded sodium metatungstate in the fabric.
Dad and son worked on a DIY project — a new bathroom that featured tiles with light-reflecting properties thanks to tungsten oxide and tungsten metal in the glaze. The tools they used included a cemented carbide tile cutter and a drill with cemented carbide bits.
As the mom fixed dinner, making use of a cemented carbide knife sharpener, the dad (an audiophile) tested out a recent purchase — an analog vinyl record player equipped with:
- A tungsten counterweight for adjusting the tone arm and dampening vibration.
- Four heavy feet on the bottom made from heavy alloy to dampen the effects of vibration on the turntable
After dinner, the family headed out to the movies to see the latest thriller in wide-angle projection, with clarity and brightness from Xenon short arc lamps equipped with tungsten electrodes.
And while the family ended their day back at home under the glow of tungsten filament lamps — an application that owes its warm and welcoming glow to the resistivity of tungsten but is not so common today compared with CFLs and LEDs — almost all of those other tungsten uses are just as relevant today.
Is There Tungsten in Your Future?
Of course, this is all just our take on how tungsten uses have evolved over the past decade-plus. However, we think you’ll agree this comparison shows that tungsten is still one of the most widely used and beneficial refractory metals.
As a company that knows how to cut tungsten and put it to optimal use, Metal Cutting can help you determine if properties such as the high melting point of tungsten make it the right material for your current or planned application — just give us a call.
You can also learn the basics of tungsten wire, its properties, and its applications in our guide, Tungsten Wire 101: Overview of a Uniquely Useful Material, which is available for free download.