Roskill forecasts that total demand for tantalum will grow by 3.3% CAGR between 2017 and 2026. Capacitors are, and will remain, the largest single market but demand growth in this segment will be below average. Increasing functionality (‘bundling’ of applications) of smartphones, and ongoing reductions in capacitor size, are the principal limiters of growth. Shipments of smartphones themselves are expected to rise by 3%py through to 2026. Demand for tantalum in superalloys will have an above-average rate of growth because of a healthy outlook for the commercial aerospace sector. Sputtering targets, tantalum chemicals and mill products have a wide range of final applications and this diversity provides a measure of protection from swings in individual end-use markets. Demand in these segments will also display above average growth. The use of tantalum in carbides will decline slowly.
Total new supply could increase by 37% between 2017 and 2026. Much of the rise in output will come from conventional mining, with expansion in production expected from Mineração Taboca’s Pitinga mine, which does not supply tantalum in the form of a concentrate. The industry could witness substantial changes in the coming years as an increasing volume of material is supplied as a by-product on the back of large anticipated growth of lithium mining in Australia.
Such shifts in the tantalum landscape have been seen in the past. Production in Australia, which a decade ago accounted for up to 60% of global supply, fell to almost zero by the end of the 2000s as low prices made conventional mining there uneconomic. Artisanal mining, particularly in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, grew to fill the supply gap. Little traditional hard-rock mining of primary tantalum remains, and in recent years, only a fairly small amount has been produced in Australia as a lithium by-product. By 2026, though, Australia could be responsible for supplying a fifth of the world’s tantalum from by-product sources.
In 2016, 19% of supply was from South America, from two large mines in Brazil, one of which was contractually captive to a major processor, from artisanal mining of the niobium mineral columbite and from slags generated during tin smelting. Conventional mining in Brazil is being expanded and by 2026 South America could account for 24% of global tantalum supply.
In 2016, an estimated 63% of mine supply was from Africa. The majority of that was from artisanal mining operations in the Great Lakes region, mainly Rwanda and the DRC. In recent years that region has accounted for 45% to 55% of global production. As consumers potentially turn to low-cost, conflict-free material offered by Australian lithium by-product producers, this could reduce the current reliance on artisanal suppliers. By the end of the outlook period, supply from the Great Lakes region might show a noticeable fall.