Linked to the Enlightenment movement, the Royal Basque Society of Friends of the Country (Real Sociedad Bascongada de los Amigos del Pais), Euskalerriko Adiskideen Elkartea in basque (Euskera), was founded in 1764 and has its origins in gatherings held at the Intsausti Palace in Azkoitia, by the Count of Peñaflorida, Xavier Ma de Munibe. With the help of a group of enlightened figures, Peñaflorida developed the plan for an economic society or academy of agriculture, sciences, useful arts, and commerce. This project was presented to the General Assemblies of Gipuzkoa, the territory’s parliament, in 1763; its authors had a particular interest in promoting the economy of their surroundings.

Due to its outstanding results, this organization became one of the main and pioneering research and science institutions of its time. Currently, its essential activity is to delve into the history and culture of the Basque Country, cultivate the basque language, promote economic development, and disseminate science and culture among the Basque people. Its main headquarters are in Azkoitia (Guipuzkoa) and it has branches in Bilbao (capital of Biscay), Donostia-San Sebastián (capital of Guipuzkoa), Vitoria-Gasteiz (capital of Araba- Álava), Madrid (capital of Spain), and Mexico City (capital of Mexico).

In the premises of this institution, the brothers Fausto and Juan José D’Elhuyar achieved the isolation of tungsten, the only chemical element discovered in Spain and the first chemical element to be isolated in the world, without being directly extracted from nature, as it does not exist in free form without chemical combination.

Juan José D’Elhuyar

Fausto Fermín D’Elhuyar

Fausto Fermín D’Elhuyar (1755-1833) and Juan José D’Elhuyar (1754-1796) were in charge of the ‘Laboratorium Chemicum’ of the Royal Basque Society of Friends of the Country: in their research, they started from wolframite (the generic name for a group of tungsten minerals such as iron tungstate or ferberite aned manganese tungstate or hübnerite). By reduction with carbon, on September 28, 1783, they obtained the new metal, which they called volfram; currently known as tungsten. Tungsten is a metal with great strategic value. The extremely high density and hardness of tungsten (just behind diamonds), as well as the highest melting temperature of all metals (3,410 oC), make it useful in very resistant alloys.

Electron shell diagram for Tungsten

It is also used in vacuum and X-ray tubes, as well as in metal evaporation. It is used in coils and other heating elements of electric furnaces that require working at high temperatures and being resistant to corrosion. Moreover, it is used in the military field, aerospace industry (engines and rockets), chemical catalysis, mobile phones, circuit boards, dental instruments, and various means of transportation such as trains or airplanes. Furthermore, it is used to manufacture the tip of pens, subjected to great wear, pressure, and effort. Tungsten has also been selected as the most appropriate material for future nuclear fusion reactors. As well as, tungsten carbide which is used due to its hardness as a cutting material for all types of metals in lathes, mining, public works, and oil drilling.

On the whole, due to its multiple and diverse uses, the European Union has included tungsten in the list of critical raw materials; meaning those with great economic importance and a high risk of supply shortage. Current European production, which is 2.8% of global production, is concentrated mainly in Spain, Portugal, and Austria and is still obtained by the procedure developed by the De Elhuyar brothers.