Niobium is considered to be a critical and strategic commodity because of the metal’s specialized applications in defense, energy, high-tech industrial, and medical sectors. In addition, Niobium has no effective substitutes and the production of niobium is highly concentrated. In fact, current identified resources of niobium are located predominantly in Brazil (about 95 percent) and Canada (about 3.5 percent), with just three companies – Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineracao (CBMM), Anglo American Niobio Brasil, and IAMGOLD Corp (of Canada) – together producing about 90% of the world’s demand for niobium products.
The United States does not have a niobium mining industry because domestic resources are of low-grade, mineralogically complex, and mostly not commercially recoverable. The U.S., like many countries, is forced to import 100% of its niobium source materials for processing, except in the case where some small amounts of niobium are recovered from alloy scrap. In 2018, U.S. niobium consumption was up 27% over 2017, with increased demand linked to increased consumption of microalloyed steel, used in the manufacturing of cars, buildings, ships, cell phones, computers, superconducting magnets, high-tech devices, and refinery equipment.
The geographic concentration of niobium resources and production make their supply vulnerable to potential influence and disruption by civil unrest, environmental issues, market manipulation, natural disasters, and political changes. It cannot be disputed that trade wars and geopolitical tensions could limit the ability of the U.S. to secure necessary niobium resources in the future.
Beyond the basics above, what else should we know about niobium? Check out the 15 interesting facts below!
- In 1801, English chemist Charles Hatchett analysed a specimen of an unknown mineral from the collection of the British Museum in London and determined that this mineral contained a ‘new earth’. He named this element ‘columbium’.
- In 1809, British chemist William Hyde Wollaston analysed both columbium and tantalum mineral specimens and claimed that they were the same element. There was no dispute of this conclusion at that time.
- In 1844, Heinrich Rose was able to distinguish columbium from tantalum by observing differences in their valence states. He renamed columbium to ‘niobium’ after Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus.
- The names ‘columbium’ and ‘niobium’ were both used to identify the element until 1949, when the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) officially adopted ‘niobium’ as the name.
- Significant U.S. niobium mine production has not been reported since 1959.
- From 2014 to 2017, U.S. niobium import sources were: Brazil, 72%; Canada, 18%; Russia, 3%; Germany, 2%; and other, 5%.
- In May 2018, the U.S. Department of the Interior, in coordination with other executive branch agencies, published a list of 35 critical minerals (83 FR 23295), including niobium. This list was developed to serve as an initial focus, pursuant to Executive Order 13817, ‘‘A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals” (82 FR 60835).
- Brazil is the world’s leading supplier of niobium (about 90 percent); its major deposits occur in Late Cretaceous carbonatite complexes. These complexes were emplaced along deep-seated faults located along the southwestern border of the ancient (Archean) São Francisco craton. The Araxá deposit is the largest operating deposit; it has more than 460 million metric tons of weathered ore with a mean grade of 2.48 percent Nb2 O5.
- The leading producer of niobium outside of Brazil is the Niobec Mine in Quebec, Canada. This mine is the only operating underground niobium mine in the world. The Niobec Mine is hosted by the Saint-Honoré carbonatite complex dated at 650 mega-annum (Ma), which is covered by Paleozoic limestone and glacial deposits.
- Niobium is a lustrous, gray, ductile metal with a high melting point, relatively low density, and superconductor properties.
- Niobium does not occur naturally as a pure metal – it is primarily derived from the complex oxide minerals of the pyrochlore group ((Na,Ca,Ce)2 (Nb,Ti,Ta)2 (O,OH,F)7 ) and has an average abundance in the Earth’s crust of 8.0 parts per million (ppm).
- An alloy of tantalum, niobium, hafnium, zirconium and titanium has been shown to conduct electricity with zero resistance, or superconduct, from ambient pressure up to pressures similar to those that exist near the centre of the Earth. The material is a member of a new family of metal alloys known as high-entropy alloys (HEAs), which are composed of random atomic-scale mixtures of elements from the block of “transition metals” on the periodic table.
- Niobium is widely used for body piercing, and when put through an anodizing process results in varying colors of jewelry without the use of toxic inks or dyes.
- Niobium nickel-, cobalt-, and iron-based superalloys are critical for high-temperature applications in jet engines, gas turbines, rocket subassemblies, turbocharger systems, and combustion equipment and find high demand in the aerospace industry. Not only that, but niobium alloys are used in manufacturing superconducting magnets for medical hardware such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) instruments. Niobium alloys are contained in the superconducting magnets used in particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider in Europe.
- The steel industry uses nearly 80 percent of the world’s produced niobium to manufacture high-strength steels. Niobium, a grain refiner and precipitation hardener, enhances the steels’ mechanical strength, toughness, high-temperature strength, and corrosion resistance for use in pipelines, transportation, car and truck bodies, tool steels, ships hulls, railroad tracks, architectural and structural applications, and more.