What is Niobium?

Niobium (chemical element “Nb”) is a naturally occurring grey, soft transition metal with a white lustre that is ductile, malleable and highly resistant to corrosion.

The most common mineral ore types to host niobium are pyrochlore and columbite found in carbonatite, rare metal granite, lithium-caesium-tantalum pegmatite and alkaline granite and syenite. Niobium is often hosted in combination with tantalum.

Niobium ore is generally mined and extracted by conventional mining exploitation methods. The ore is beneficiated into a concentrate and further processed into intermediate products such as ferroniobium, niobium oxide, niobium metal and vacuum-grade niobium alloys.

Niobium intermediate products are used in products such as steel, super alloys, superconducting magnets, capacitors, and glass. Ferroniobium (“FeNb”) is the most commercial niobium intermediate product for its use for microalloying in the manufacturing of High-Strength Low-Alloy Steel (“HSLA”) products. About 90% of niobium is processed into FeNb, containing on average 66% Nb content.

Niobium Intermediate Products

Mineral Occurrence

Niobium Mineralogy

Niobium does not occur naturally as a pure metal, but as a component in a variety of oxide and hydroxide minerals. The economically important mineral species are all oxides with pyrochlore the principal ore mineral for niobium. Until the discovery of pyrochlore-rich deposits in the 1950s, niobium was produced as a by-product of mining columbite-tantalite-bearing pegmatites for tantalum.

Table 1: Niobium minerals and compositional range

Niobium minerals and compositional range

Niobium Deposit Types

Niobium minerals are found in a variety of igneous rocks around the world but only rarely in concentrations great enough to be of economic interest. Primary niobium mineral deposits are found in three main types of igneous intrusive rocks:

  • Carbonatites and associated alkaline rocks (Nb dominant),
  • Alkaline to peralkaline granites and syenites (Nb dominant), and
  • Rare-metal granites and lithium-caesium-tantalum pegmatites.

In addition, secondary concentrations have been formed by weathering of primary deposits (laterites) and by sedimentary processes (placers). The secondary deposits are of particular interest because they can be less expensive to mine and can have higher grades than primary hard-rock deposits.

Table 2: Major types of niobium deposits

Major types of niobium deposits
World map showing locations of selected niobium deposits

Niobium Mineral Resources and Reserves

Most of the world’s identified resources of niobium occur as pyrochlore in carbonatite.

Log-log plot of deposit grades and tonnages for niobium by deposit type

According to the United States Geological Survey (“USGS”), there is approximately 9.1 million tonnes in global mineral reserves of niobium. Reserves of niobium are located predominantly in Brazil and Canada accounting 7.3 million tonnes and 1.6 million tonnes, respectively.

Additional resources are located in Angola, Australia, China, Greenland, Malawi, Russia, South Africa, and the United States.

Niobium Supply

The USGS estimates niobium mine production in 2018, to be 68,000 tonnes. Brazil and Canada dominate with a combined market share exceeding 98%. In 2018 Brazil is estimated to have produced 60,000 tonnes of niobium followed by Canada with 7,000 tonnes and other countries with 1,000.

Global Niobium Production

There are only three companies in the world that mine niobium as their primary product. Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração (“CBMM”) is by far the world’s largest niobium mining and processing company followed by China Molybdenum Co., Ltd, both with operations in Brazil and then Magris Resources Inc with an operation in Canada.

Table 3: Top 3 Niobium Producers

Company Name CBMM China Moly Magris Resources
Project Name Pyrochlore Mine Catalão St. Honore
Region Minas Gerais, Brazil Goiás, Brazil Quebec, Canada
Pyrochlore type Sedimentary Fresh Rock Sedimentary Fresh Rock
Nb2O5 (%) 2.5% 1.57% 0.4% 0.53%
Mineral Resources (Mt) 829 936 559.3 69
Mining Method Open-cut Open-cut Underground
Intermediate

Products

Ferroniobium, Niobium Oxide, Vacuum-Grade Niobium Alloys

Vacuum Grade Ferroniobium Alloys

Ferroniobium Ferroniobium

CBMM was founded in 1955, it operates an open pit mine in Araxá, Brazil. The ore body is a deep weathered carbonatite, with 440Mt of ore reserves at an average grade of 2.5% Nb2O5, which forms the largest proven niobium reserves in the world. CBMM does not market the ore, but transforms all the concentrated pyrochlore into a wide range of products consisting of ferroniobium (FeNb), the main finished product, vacuum grade alloys, niobium metal and a range of chemicals, including high-purity and optical grade niobium oxides and ammonium niobium oxalate. The ferroniobium production of CBMM was approximately 83 thousand metric tons in 2018, up from 68.7 thousand tons produced 2017. In 2018, ferroniobium represented more than 88 percent of the company's niobium production.

Niobras, the second largest niobium producer worldwide operating an open pit mine, extracts pyrochlore from a carbonatite deposit at its Boa Vista mine in Catalão, Brazil, which has been in operation since 1973. The ore is processed at its industrial facility in Ouvidor to produce ferroniobium. In 2012, the Boa Vista Fresh Rock Project was approved and, since then, production has increased from 4,500 t Nb in 2013 to 8,600 t Nb in 2017. In 2016, China Molybdenum Co., Ltd (“CMOC”) bought the company from Anglo American.

Niobec Inc, the third largest niobium producer worldwide operating an underground mine, extracts pyrochlore from a carbonatite deposit at Niobec located in the municipality of Saint-Honoré, approximately 200 kilometres north of Québec, Canada. A pyrochlore concentrate (58% niobium pentoxide, Nb2O5) is produced from the ore which is converted to ferroniobium. Magris Resources Inc officially became the new owner of Niobec Inc in January 2015.

These three companies produce about 90% of the world's demand for niobium products, with most output being in the form of ferroniobium with a nominal 65% niobium oxide content.

Columbite, occurs in Brazil and countries in central Africa. Unlike pyrochlore, columbite is not processed into niobium metal products, but is transported to the same processing industries which receive tantalum raw materials. There, the columbite is treated in the same manner as tantalite and the niobium content recovered along with any tantalum. The niobium obtained from columbite is mainly used in the production of high-grade niobium oxide and other niobium chemicals.

Niobium is also found, in very small quantities, in the slags produced from the smelting of some tin ores.

Niobium Demand

Market Applications

The largest end use for niobium is in high-strength, low-alloy (HSLA) steel. HSLA steels consume approximately 90% of the annual niobium production in the automotive, marine (offshore platforms, pipelines) and civil construction (bridges and buildings) industries. The superior strength of HSLA steels means that less is needed to achieve the same result. Niobium, in the form of ferroniobium, is used in approximately 10% of steels produced worldwide.

Distribution of Niobium Steel Applications

In the field of electronics and nanotechnology, niobium powder is used as nanostructured materials, due to its characteristic of high purity. In the medical field, niobium is used in magnetic resonance imaging.

Table 4: Niobium products and applications

Niobium
Product
Principal
Properties
Applications
Nb oxide High index of refraction
High dielectric constant
Increase light transmittance
Camera lenses
Coating on glass for computer screens
Ceramic capacitors
Manufacture of lithium niobate for surface acoustic wave filters
Nb carbide High temperature deformation and controls grain growth Cutting tool compositions
Nb powder High dielectric constant, stability of oxide dielectric Nb capacitors for electronic circuits
Nb metal Corrosion resistance Chemical processing
Equipment
FeNb Weight reduction, increased strength and toughness due to grain refining Nb additive to high strength low alloy steel and stainless steel
Nb titanium and Nb tin alloys Very low electrical resistance of alloywire at low temperatures Superconducting magnetic coils in magnetic resonance imagery

 

Substitution Effect

Niobium can be used as a substitute for vanadium in high strength steel, and whenever there is a surge in vanadium prices, some steel mills consider replacing vanadium with niobium.

Niobium imports into China start rising when the ferrovanadium (“FeV”) price moves above US$20.00/KgV. During 2003-2008, both vanadium and niobium imports into China grew dramatically with the advent of Grade 3 rebar. In late 2008 Chinese niobium imports declined as FeV prices dropped below US$60.00/KgV. When vanadium prices returned to reasonable levels vanadium consumption continued to grow while niobium consumption stagnated. In 2016 ferroniobium prices were roughly US$40/KgNb. FeV prices were rising from a very low point and passed US$20.00/KgV in September 2016. Niobium imports grew significantly starting H2-2016.

FeNb Imports to China vs MB FeV Price

Tantalum-Niobium International Study Centre (T.I.C.) Annual Statistics 2009 - 2017

The T.I.C. provided a report on members’ data for calendar years 2009 through 2017 in Bulletin No 176 (January 2019). Niobium has seen a CAGR of 4% in the period 2009 to 2017. The majority of niobium units went into ferroniobium destined for HSLA steel. The proportion of niobium-bearing materials other than concentrates (e.g. tantalite and tin slag) has played a very small role in the supply of units to market.

Niobium raw materials mining production and trade receipts
Niobium product shipments by processors

Niobium Pricing

Niobium is not a traded commodity on any metal exchange. Most transaction prices are determined by negotiation between buyer and seller and subject to long-term confidential contracts. A limited amount of ferroniobium and concentrate is traded against the ‘spot’ market, and prices are available through trade-journal subscription (e.g. Fastmarkets Metal Pages, Asian Metals).

The ferroniobium market it is an oligopoly controlled by the only three producing companies. Prices are essentially determined by the market leader rather than being driven by supply and demand. Ferroniobium is sold directly to steelmakers with prices fixed for the year, bi-yearly or on a quarterly basis.

Between 1991 and 2005, the average export price for Brazilian ferroniobium remained within the range of US$12.5-13.5/kg contained niobium. That changed in 2006. Average import prices for ferro-niobium reported by major importing countries in 2008 were more than double those achieved in 2005, despite CBMM doubling its niobium production capacity over the same period. While the rate of price increases slowed at the height of the global financial crisis in 2009, they did not reverse, but instead reached a peak in 2012-13, before moderating very slightly in 2015.

The price rise from 2005 to 2013 is considered to represent a one-off adjustment to a persistently low prior pricing environment. In real terms, niobium prices had been falling for years, at the same time as demand was increasing and producers were expanding capacity.

Ferroniobium price 1991 – 2015 (US$/kg)

From levels of over US$40/kg between 2011 and 2015, prices fell in most markets in 2016, partly because of the strengthening US$ and remained in the low to mid-30s in 2017. Chinese import spot prices in June 2019 were quoted around the US$30/kg mark. Roskill does not expect ferroniobium prices to rise above US$/40kg Nb before 2024.

Niobium concentrate prices rose sharply in 2017, increasing by over 60% during the year to finish at US$16/lb Nb2O5. The price indicated a reversal of the downward trend since 2012, when levels of over US$20/lb Nb2O5 occurred. Chinese import spot prices in June 2019 were quoted around the US$10/lb CIF China mark. In July 2019, a niobium concentrate trader in Brazil claimed that they quote US$9.0/lb FOB Brazil for niobium concentrate. Roskill forecast niobium concentrate prices will not pass US$20/lb through to 2027.

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