Niobium - Raw Materials and Processing
Typical Market Specifications
Columbite on the international market generally contains a minimum of 50% Nb2O5. The value is based on the combined Nb2O5+Ta2O5 content payable entirely as Nb2O5, there is no premium for the Ta2O5 content.
The tantalum and niobium minerals often contain somewhat elevated levels of naturally occurring thorium and uranium, usually high enough for them to be classified as radioactive for handling and transport. It is incumbent on any producer or trader to also analyse for Th and U in order to demonstrate whether the material is radioactive or not. As a guide, these elements are of concern for the purpose of mining and handling at levels above 1 Bq/g, a level obtained from e.g. 0.013% ThO2 plus 0.0048% U3O8, whereas for transport the levels of concern are an order of magnitude higher, i.e. 10 Bq/g or 0.13% ThO2 plus 0.048% U3O8.
The T.I.C. as an international association is not allowed to gather data on nor discuss prices, forecasting or future trends, as this would be against our Charter and may raise antitrust and competition law concerns.
It is important to understand that there are no official prices for tantalum or niobium commodities, as these metals are not traded on any metal exchange (London Metal Exchange or other). The price is determined solely by negotiation between buyer and seller.
Some price data may be found in the metals press or in publications, whether printed or on the internet. Examples of the metals press include Asian Metal, Metal Pages, Platts and Ryan’s Notes, which regularly publish subscription-based information on market prices. Their web addresses are:
To work out how to determine the value of a niobium mineral, the main principle is that only the quantity of Nb2O5+Ta2O5 contained is paid for, not the whole bulk of material. Basically the weight of material is multiplied by the percentage grade e.g. 50% Nb2O5+Ta2O5, then multiplied by the pricing rate of X $/lb Nb2O5.
[Value columbite] = weight of material x 50% [x conversion to lb if necessary] x X$ / lb Nb2O5
In theory it does not matter whether the material is 50% or 60%, by applying the percentage the quantity paid for is automatically adjusted; sliding scales according to grade are not known of. There may possibly be fixed discounts or premiums for grades significantly below or above the 50% to 70% range.
Mineração Catalão, Aerial view of Catalão plant (Ruy George Fischer)
The primary mineral from which niobium is obtained is known as pyrochlore. The world's largest deposit is located in Araxá, Brazil and is owned by Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração (CBMM). The reserves are enough to supply current world demand for about 500 years, about 460 million tons. The mining of weathered ore, running between 2.5 and 3.0% Nb2O5, is conducted by simple open pit mining without the need for drilling and explosives. Approximately 85 to 90% of the niobium industry obtains its niobium ores from sources other than those associated with the mining of tantalum-containing ores.
Another pyrochlore mine in Brazil is owned and operated by Mineração Catalão de Goias and contains 18 million tonnes at 1.34% niobium oxide. The third major deposit of pyrochlore being actively mined is the Niobec Mine in Quebec, Canada, owned by Camet Metallurgy, with reserves of 18 000 tonnes.
In all three facilities, the pyrochlore mineral is processed by primarily physical processing technology to give a concentrate ranging from 55 to about 60% niobium oxide.
These three companies produce about 85% of the world's demand for niobium products, with most of that output being in the form of ferro-niobium with a nominal 60% niobium oxide content, for making high-strength, low-alloy steel.
Columbite, a mineral with a ratio of Nb2O5:Ta2O5 ranging from 10:1 to 13:1, occurs in Brazil, Nigeria, and Australia, also other countries in central Africa. Niobium is recovered when the ores are processed for tantalum.
Niobium is also found, in very small quantities, in the slags produced from the smelting of some tin ores.
Cambior, Ferroniobium production (Rachelle Bergeron)Two separate processing schemes are utilized for niobium production. Those companies that mine pyrochlore convert the niobium oxide units into HSLA ferro-niobium through the aluminothermic reduction process or by reduction in an electric arc furnace. CBMM has installed capacity for the production of a high purity oxide that can be used to produce vacuum grade ferro- and nickel-niobium as well as niobium metal ingots via electron beam refining.
The use of columbite and tantalum-bearing ores, such as tantalite, as feedstocks results in the necessity to process these materials chemically as described in the tantalum section. The purified niobium-containing process stream is generally converted to niobium hydroxide by the introduction of ammonia, followed by washing, filtration, and calcining to the oxide. Purities exceeding 99.99% can be achieved.
Niobium oxide (Nb2O5) is generally the starting chemical for the production of other compounds, such as niobium chloride (NbCl5), niobium carbide (NbC), or lithium niobate (LiNbO3). Niobium metal is produced by the aluminothermic reduction of the oxide followed by electron beam refining. Niobium powders can be produced by the reduction of potassium niobium heptafluoride (K2NbF7) with sodium, or by the reduction of niobium oxide with magnesium.
The various metallurgical products are generally produced from electron beam or vacuum arc melted niobium ingot. Double and triple melt ingots achieve a very high level of purification with respect to metallics and interstitial elements. Ingots are used to produce niobium alloys such as niobium-1% zirconium, niobium-titanium, C-103, Inconels, and others.
Several capacitor manufacturers are developing capacitors using niobium metal powder or niobium oxide, and these models are gradually being brought to the market.
Applications for Niobium
|Niobium Product||Application||Technical Attributes/Benefits|
|HSLA Ferro-niobium (~60%Nb)||Niobium additive to high strength low alloy steel and stainless steel for oil and gas pipelines, car and truck bodies, architectural requirements, tool steels, ships hulls, railroad tracks.||Imparts a doubling of strength and toughness due to grain refining. Weight reduction.|
|Niobium oxide||- Manufacture lithium niobate for surface acoustic wave filters.|
- Camera lenses.
- Coating on glass for computer screens.
- Ceramic capacitors.
|- High index of refraction.|
- High dielectric constant.
- Increase light transmittance.
|Niobium carbide||Cutting tool compositions.||High temperature deformation, controls grain growth.|
|Niobium powder||Niobium capacitors for electronic circuits.||High dielectric constant, stability of oxide dielectric.|
|Niobium metal plates, sheets, wire, rod, tubing||- Sputtering targets.|
- Cathode protection systems for large steel structures.
- Chemical processing equipment.
|Corrosion resistance, formation of oxide and nitride films. Increase in high temperature resistance and corrosion resistance, oxidation resistance, improved creep resistance, reduced erosion at high temperatures.|
|Superconducting magnetic coils in magnetic resonance imagery (MRI), magnetoencephalography, magnetic levitation transport systems, particle physics experiments.||Electrical resistance of alloy wire drops to virtually zero at or below temperature of liquid helium (-268.8°C).|
|Niobium-1%zirconium alloy||- Sodium vapor lamps|
- Chemical processing equipment
|Corrosion resistance, fixation of oxygen, resistance to embrittlement.|
|Vacuum-grade ferro-niobium and nickel-niobium||Superalloy additions for turbine blade applications in jet engines and land-based turbines. Inconel family of alloys, superalloys.||Increase in high temperature resistance and corrosion resistance, oxidation resistance, improved creep resistance, reduced erosion at high temperatures.|
AVX, Niobium oxide capacitors (Bill Millman)