Occurrence and Uses
Tantalum (Ta) is obtained from the ores tantalite and columbite, which are mixed oxides of iron, manganese, niobium and tantalum. Although they are considered rare elements, the earth’s crust contains about 0.003% of niobium and tantalum together, which are similar chemically and usually occur in combination.
The chief use of tantalum is in the production of electric capacitators. Tantalum powder is compacted, sintered and subjected to anodic oxidation. The film of oxide on the surface serves as an insulator, and upon introduction of an electrolyte solution, a high-performance capacitator is obtained. Structurally, tantalum is used where its high melting point, high density and resistance to acids are advantageous. The metal is employed widely in the chemical industry. Tantalum has also been used in rectifiers for railway signals, in surgery for suture wire and for bone repair, in vacuum tubes, furnaces, cutting tools, prosthetic appliances, fibre spinnerets and in laboratory ware.
Tantalum carbide is used as an abrasive. Tantalum oxide finds use in the manufacture of special glass with a high index of refraction for camera lenses.
Metallic tantalum powder presents a fire and explosion hazard, although not as serious as that of other metals (zirconium, titanium and so on). The working of tantalum metal presents the hazards of burns, electric shock, and eye and traumatic injuries. Refining processes involve toxic and hazardous chemicals such as hydrogen fluoride, sodium and organic solvents.
Toxicity. The systemic toxicity of tantalum oxide, as well as that of metallic tantalum, is low, which is probably due to its poor solubility. It does, however, represent a skin, eye and respiratory hazard. In alloys with other metals such as cobalt, tungsten and niobium, tantalum has been attributed an aetiological role in hard-metal pneumoconiosis and in skin affections caused by hard-metal dust. Tantalum hydroxide was found to be not highly toxic to chick embryos, and the oxide was non-toxic to rats by intraperitoneal injection. Tantalum chloride, however, had an LD50 of 38 mg/kg (as Ta) while the complex salt K2TaF7 was about one-fourth as toxic.
Safety and Health Measures
In most operations, general ventilation can maintain the concentration of the dust of tantalum and its compounds below the threshold limit value. Open flames, arcs and sparks should be avoided in areas where tantalum powder is handled. If workers are regularly exposed to dust concentrations approaching the threshold limit level, periodic medical examinations, with emphasis on pulmonary function, are advisable. For operations involving fluorides of tantalum, as well as hydrogen fluoride, the precautions applicable to these compounds should be observed.
Tantalum bromide (TaBr5), tantalum chloride (TaCl5) and tantalum fluoride (TaF5) should be kept in tightly stoppered bottles which are plainly labelled and stored in a cool, ventilated place, away from compounds which are affected by acids or acid fumes. Personnel involved should be cautioned about their hazards.