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What is Tungsten?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Tungsten is a metallic chemical element classified among the transition metals of the periodic table of elements. It is well known for its strength and durability, which make it extremely useful in a wide range of industrial applications. Some consumers also own products which contain tungsten or were produced with the metal. The world's major sources of this element are Russia, Austria, China, and Portugal, where it is extracted from minerals such as scheelite and wolframite.

This element is not found in a pure form in nature. When it is isolated, tungsten in a very hard, brittle, gray to white metal that is extremely corrosion resistant. It has the highest melting point and tensile strength of any metal, and it also has the lowest vapor pressure point. The metal is identified with the symbol W on the periodic table of elements, a reference to its alternate name, wolfram. Tungsten's atomic number is 74.

People have known about the existence of tungsten since at least the early 1700s, when observers noted that the metal interacted with tin. In 1784, the de Elhuyar brothers managed to isolate it in Spain, using tungstic acid extracted from wolframite. Tungsten has classically been a very valuable metal, since its durability and strength make it extremely useful for military and industrial uses. The name of the element comes from the Swedish tung, or “heavy,” and sten, for “stone.”

One of the most famous uses of tungsten is as a filament in light bulbs. The metal is also used in an assortment of alloys to increase their hardness and tensile strength. Many structural metal alloys use it since the metal has an extremely high melting point, and the element is also used to make wear-resistant tools. While these tools can be expensive, many workers like them because of their durability and long lifetimes.

Tungsten does have some safety precautions. Dust from the metal can be flammable or explosive, and it also irritates mucus membranes, such as those inside of the nose and mouth. In some regions, tungsten has been linked with serious infections of the lungs in people who work with the element on a regular basis without adequate protections. Exposure to the metal has also been correlated with increased rates of cancer, although hard evidence to turn the correlation into causation has not been uncovered.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon986017 — On Jan 22, 2015

Is tungsten a reusable source?

By anon352556 — On Oct 23, 2013

What's the streak and fracture of tungsten?

By anon329786 — On Apr 11, 2013

Is tungsten a non-renewable resource?

By anon300978 — On Nov 01, 2012

Tungsten is very strong, though only diamonds can cut diamonds.

By anon274417 — On Jun 11, 2012

Tungsten rings are phenomenal! My husband loves his 8mm tungsten wedding band because it still looks like new even after four years. We don't even need to worry about it breaking because our retailer offered a lifetime warranty!

By anon249539 — On Feb 21, 2012

So, tungsten dust causes cancer. Completely against that.

By anon248032 — On Feb 15, 2012

What if we were to make a nuclear fusion chamber out of tungsten?

By anon146445 — On Jan 26, 2011

We ended up purchasing a tungsten ring from Tungsten Fashions (that is the name of the company). Great value and awesome rings. just sayin'.

By anon143113 — On Jan 15, 2011

Well, Tungsten is just a normal metal used for many objects because of its strength.

By anon125617 — On Nov 10, 2010

@anon29651: No, diamonds are used to cut diamonds!

It is the only thing hard enough.

By anon54276 — On Nov 28, 2009

Why is the 16th wedding anniversary called Tungsten anniversary?

By anon29651 — On Apr 06, 2009

Is tungsten used to cut diamonds?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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