by U.S. Geological Survey Thursday, June 26, 2014
U.S. Geological Survey mineral commodity specialist John F. Papp compiled the following information on niobium, also called columbium.
Niobium, also called columbium, is a transition metal with a very high melting point. It is in greatest demand in industrialized countries, like the United States, because of its defense-related uses in the aerospace, energy and transportation industries. Niobium is used mostly to make high-strength, low-alloy (HSLA) steel and stainless steel. HSLA steels are used in large-diameter pipes for oil and natural gas pipelines and automobile wheels.
About 70 percent of U.S. niobium consumption goes to the production of steel. Niobium-bearing microalloyed steels are used in automobiles, bridges, buildings, and oil and gas pipelines in applications where the strength-to-weight ratio is an important engineering consideration. Niobium-bearing HSLA steels permit designers to reduce weight and fabrication cost. Niobium is used in cobalt-, iron- and nickel-base superalloys for jet-engine components, rocket subassemblies, and combustion equipment in applications where strength at high temperature is an important engineering consideration.
In nature, niobium is closely associated with tantalum in igneous carbonate rocks, most commonly carbonatite. It is usually found in the interior parts of zoned alkaline igneous complexes, commonly associated with minerals containing thorium, titanium, uranium and rare earth elements.
The oxide mineral pyrochlore is the most important mineral source of niobium. Between 2009 and 2012, 99 percent of mined niobium production globally occurred at just three mines: two in Brazil and one in Canada. Columbite is also a mineral source for niobium. It occurs mostly as an accessory mineral disseminated in granitic rocks or in pegmatites associated with granites. In most cases, economic mineral concentrations of columbite have been produced by weathering of pegmatites and the formation of residual or placer deposits.
The United States obtains most of its supply of niobium in the form of ferroniobium. The only niobium recovered in the United States is from the recycling of niobium-bearing alloys. Niobium is recycled when niobium-bearing microalloyed or stainless steel and superalloy scrap is reused. The United States produces about 2 million metric tons per year of stainless steel that contains an estimated average of 0.014 percent niobium.
For more information about niobium and other mineral resources, visit minerals.usgs.gov/minerals.
In 2012, the leading producers of niobium were Brazil (90 percent) and Canada (9 percent).
In the U.S., steel and superalloys are the dominant end uses of niobium.
When first discovered, niobium was named columbium. Niobium was the name proposed for element 41 in 1949, and it was later adopted by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.
The chemistry of niobium and tantalum is so similar that when their mineral hosts were first analyzed, chemists could not distinguish them. As a result, the first discovery of element 41 in 1801 was denied in 1809 when it was misidentified as the previously discovered element tantalum. The second discovery of element 41 occurred in 1846 when improved chemical analysis could distinguish between niobium and tantalum, and the discovery of the new element was confirmed.
Coltan (short for columbite-tantalite) is the ore associated with recent conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). The ore is believed to have been smuggled out and sold to help finance armed conflicts. Coltan may also contribute to armed conflict in Colombia. The U.S. Dodd-Frank Act now requires U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission-listed companies to report the source of their tantalum consumption.
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