Tantalum, #73

Tantalus was a Greek god who pissed off Zeus and was thus punished, like Sisyphus, with eternal anguish. Tantalus was made to stand in a pool of water that would recede when he bent to drink. A laden fruit tree branch hung over his head and it would recede from his grasp if he tried to eat. Thus the poor fellow was “tantalized” forever! He earned it: he killed his son Pelops and tried to feed him to the Olympians (Greek gods are hella weird!) but got busted. Pelops was the father of Atreus who was the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus. You might have heard about those guys and a little thing called the Trojan War.

The guy who discovered Tantalum (Anders Ekberg in 1802) named it so because the metal was resistant to acid. Even in an acid bath the metal would not absorb the solution or get saturated.

These days the element is used (in powdered form) to make capacitors. In the old days capacitors were called condensers. Many of the terms first used in electronics had a mechanical origin. Plumbing analogies abounded when describing electric circuits. The forerunner of the transistor—the triode vacuum tube—had parts known as the gate, source, and drain. These days the corresponding parts of the transistor are the base, emitter, and collector.

Capacitors are key elements in modern circuits. They are generally used as filters, sensors, and in tuning and switching applications. Needless to say there are hundreds of millions of them in existence, perhaps billions, as they are used in almost every electronic device.

Tantalum is mined with cobalt and is thus a conflict mineral. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the chief source. Worldwide demand is about 2000 metric tons per year. Tantalum ores have not been mined in the U.S. since 1959.

Here’s some tantalum “caps” you can buy at Wal-Mart:

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