Niobium (Nb) is an alloy agent that provides unique properties to the materials to which it is added. For example, adding niobium to steel renders the latter both more resistant and lighter, thus increasing its advantages from an environmental and economical standpoint. Thanks to its unique properties, it is used in the automotive industry, aerospace, petrochemical and pipeline construction, bridges and other various jobs.
In 1994, Niobec became a true integrated mining and metallurgy complex with the construction of a conversion plant that converts niobium concentrate (Nb2O5) into ferroniobium (FeNb). This has allowed Niobec to place itself among the leading international ferroniobium producers. The conversion of the niobium concentrate into ferroniobium (FeNb) is performed on site by way of thermite reaction. The conversion is conducted on site using a thermite reaction. The pyrochlore concentrate is mixed with several raw materials including aluminum granules, metallic iron, sodium nitrate and recycled fine materials before being transferred to a reactor. This combination produces a powerful exothermic reaction that generates enough heat to bring the temperature up to 2,250ºC, thus melting the entire load in less than 10 minutes. A typical load of 6,400 kg generates 2,400 kg of ferroniobium. Following a cooling period, the ferroniobium is crushed to sizes specified by various steel plants, packaged in 10 to 1,500 kg containers, and shipped worldwide.
History of niobium
Charles Hatchett, an English chemist, discovered this chemical element in 1801. It was only until the early 18th century that niobium was used for industrial purposes, even though it presented highly advantageous physical properties in comparison with other metals.
Its use began in 1925, when niobium started replacing tungsten in the manufacturing of steel-based tools. During the 1930’s, niobium was used to prevent the corrosion of stainless steel. When the primary production of
niobium started, it became a key element in the development of modern engineering materials, and its use increased progressively following metallurgical breakthroughs.
By the end of the 1960’s, Quebec became interested in minerals and started combing its territory in search of this resource. In 1967, a radiometric anomaly was discovered in Saint‑Honoré, in the Saguenay region, during a low-altitude airborne survey. This unexpected discovery eventually led to another one: a substantial niobium deposit.
The term niobium comes from Greek mythology, namely from Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus, son of Zeus. This particular term was chosen because it had been determined that tantalum, which was previously discovered, is combined with niobium.
Niobium is an alloy agent that provides unique properties to the materials to which it is added. For example, steel containing niobium resists corrosion and is stronger and lighter than pure steel. Niobium can be found namely in rockets and satellites sent to space and even in the human body. Niobium’s qualities make it one of the top 8 strategic raw materials considered indispensable.
Because of its exceptional resistance, niobium-bearing steel is used for many different purposes:
- Rockets and satellites (60 % of Apollo 11’s structure was made of niobium-bearing steel).
- Automobiles – The integration of $9 worth of niobium in an automobile reduces its weight by 100 kilograms and increases its fuel efficiency by 5 %.
- Pipelines – For which niobium is sometimes associated with zirconium.
- Anti-intrusion bars.
- Orthopedics – The human body supports well niobium and titanium alloys used for implants, braces and fracture-reduction plates.
- Filler metal for arc welding purposes.
- Niobium alloys with zirconium, molybdenum, vanadium, chrome our tungsten are also used a filer metals for arc welding certain stainless steels.
- Nuclear reactors – Due to its low neutron-capture cross-sections, niobium-zirconium alloys are also used for the envelopes of nuclear reactors’ fuel rods.
- Surface acoustic wave filters.
- Jewel-making – Niobium is, together with gold, the only metal that can be forged at cold temperatures by an artisan. Its colouring by anodizing is similar to that of other similar refractory metals, such as titanium.
Markets for niobium and ferroniobium
Approximately 89 % of the worldwide consumption of niobium resides in the steel manufacturing industry; 9 % in the production of super alloys; and 2 % for super-conductivity and medical purposes. Alone, the Niobec mine currently accounts for 9 % of the worldwide production of niobium.
|Product||Key Producers||% of Nb Market||Applications||Principal Markets|
(HSLA FeNb) ~60% Nb content
|Vacuum Grade Ferroniobium
|Niobium Metals and Alloys~50-65% Nb content||
|Niobium Chemicals>99% Nb content||