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MEI Online: Electrometallurgy: Latest News: May 15th 2002

:: Australasian Acquires Tantalum Technology  

Australasian Gold Mines NL, which produces tantalum pentoxide from its Dalgaranga deposit in Western Australia, has signed an agreement with Boston University covering the development of a new process, using solid oxygen-ion-conducting membranes (SOM) to produce tantalum metal.

The research programme will be lead by Professor Uday Pal, the developer of SOM. The process has already been licensed for use in the production of magnesium. Under the terms of its agreements with Boston University, Australasian Gold has the rights to apply the technology to tungsten, gallium, yttrium, thallium and germanium, and the global rights to sub-licence the process.

The SOM process consists of a stabilised zirconia electrolyte that separates the anode from the melt containing the oxide of the metal to be reduced. The cathode is placed in the melt, and when the applied electric potential between the anode and the cathode exceeds the dissociation potential of the oxide, the desired metal cations are reduced at the cathode and the oxygen ions oxidised at the anode. The potential between the electrodes can be increased as long as the potential at the melt/zirconia interface does not exceed the dissociation of the solid zirconia, and undesired oxides are not reduced at the cathode. Boston University says that the process has been used at a laboratory scale to produce pure magnesium, silicon and iron-silicon alloys from the relevant oxides dissolved in suitable ionic melts at temperatures of 1,200-1,500C and current densities of over lA/cm2.

According to Australasian Gold, the process could result in a tantalum yield of 95% compared with the current yield of around 70%, a reduction in capital costs and operating costs of at least 30%. In addition, Boston University notes that SOM process eliminates the production of halogen gases (which are produced by conventional electrolytic, carbothermic/ metallothermic methods used for the production of reactive metals) and is generally more environmentally friendly.



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