Niobium: The super superconductor that could power the future

Niobium: The super superconductor that could power the future

December 1, 2023 Off By Amanda Ellis

Niobium is a cool metal. A super superconductor, it has endured temperatures of 2,760º C (5,000º F) during spacecraft re-entry into Earth. Niobium is a valuable material with anti-corrosive properties, making it perfect for biomedical implants, futuristic technologies such as particle accelerators, and clean-energy options such as battery energy storage and nuclear fusion. Amanda Ellis looks into who controls niobium supply and where it might come from in the future.

What is niobium?

Niobium is a chemical element found in columbite and pyrochlore minerals. It was once known as columbium and is a transition metal like tantalum. Niobium has the symbol Nb (previously Cb) and the atomic number 41. The soft, grey, crystalline element is a ductile transition metal that resists heat and wear. Niobium is used in steel for gas pipelines and jet and rocket engines.

It’s also used in welding, nuclear industries, electronics, optics, numismatics, and jewellery. Another use is in superconducting materials, such as the alloys used in the superconducting magnets of MRI scanners. About 90% of the world’s niobium supply is used as a micro-alloy with iron by the global steel industry to make steel more robust and lighter. The micro-alloy is made from the world’s primary niobium product, ferroniobium (FeNb), about 65% niobium.

Is niobium a critical mineral?

Niobium is a mineral vital to the energy security of nations and regions across the globe. These jurisdictions include Australia, the US, Japan, and Russia – along with member states of the European Union – which view niobium (Nb) as a strategic or critical mineral.

What could niobium be used for in the future?

Niobium is vital for the world’s transition to a cleaner future through lower carbon emissions. Its potential for use in the electric vehicle and renewable energy sectors is a particular attraction for investors. When used in the steel body of a mid-size car, 300 grams of niobium can make it 200 kilograms lighter and improve its fuel efficiency by 5%. Research has shown niobium has potential in lithium-ion batteries that power EVs, making the batteries charge more quickly, have longer lives and be safer from fire risks.

Toshiba Corporation (TYO:6502) looks into niobium’s battery potential with the world’s largest niobium producer, CBMM (Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração). Niobium can make clean-energy, shining-star nuclear fusion possible by enhancing the performance of the superconducting magnets that power fusion reactors. It can also be used in particle accelerators to make them more powerful and efficient.

Who currently supplies niobium?

Niobium is available from three suppliers worldwide, two in Brazil and one in Canada. In Brazil, Grupo Moreira Salles financial group company CBMM has the Itafos (TSX-V:IFOS) Araxá mine. In contrast, the nation’s other supplier, CMOC Group (SSE:603993, SEHK:3993), previously China Molybdenum Company, has the Catalão II producing mine previously connected to Albemarle Corporation (ASX:ALB, NYSE:ALB). CBMM and CMOC supply about 95% of the world’s market. In Canada, the world’s only other producer, Magris Performance Materials (MPM), supplies 5% of the niobium market from its Niobec mine business.

Who could supply niobium in the future?

Australia may join Brazil and Canada as a future niobium producer, supplying niobium products from Australia and abroad into the global supply chain. Within Australia, niobium frontiers exist in New South Wales, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. NSW’s most advanced niobium project is at a vertically integrated producer Australian Strategic Materials’ (ASX:ASM) construction-ready Dubbo project in central western NSW.

In WA, the West Arunta region of WA has blipped the radar this quarter with activity and results on the West Arunta Greenfields frontier at WA1 Resources (ASX:WS1), Encounter Resources (ASX:ENR) and Lycaon Resources (ASX:LYN) niobium exploration projects near Fortescue Metals Group (ASX:FMG). Out of Australia in Africa, Australian Securities Exchange-listed companies Vanadium Resources (ASX:VR8), Cradle Resources (ASX:CXX) and Globe Metals & Mining (ASX:GBE) have niobium development and exploration projects.

What are the reserves of producing niobium mines?

Collectively, CBMM, CMOC and MPM have 1,208.4 million tonnes in deposits at their three producing mines at grades of 0.4-2.5% niobium pentoxide, for 14,831 kilotonnes of contained Nb2O5 – or 14,831,000 tonnes of contained Nb2O5 valued at between $A1.2 trillion and $A1.3 trillion ($US786-816 billion) in November 2023 prices. CBMM and CMOC’s niobium pentoxide grades are very high, at 2.5% and 1%, respectively, while MPM’s is a lower grade at 0.4% Nb2O5.

What is the niobium price?

On 2 November, Ferro niobium with a 50% Nb minimum in a 50kg drum out of ex-works China fetched between 255,000 and 260,000 Chinese yuan ($A55,171-55,138 or $US54,079-56,253) a metric tonne over the prior three months, according to Asian Metal. The metals prices provider reported that a three-monthly price range for niobium pentoxide, or Nb2O5, out of China, with a 99.9% minimum grading was RMB390-400 ($A81-85, $US53-55) a kilo, which equates to RMB390,000-400,000 ($A81,000-85,000, $US53,000-55,000)/tonne.

To hear Encounter managing director Will Robinson speak about West Arunta and Aileron niobium, visit our YouTube channel.

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