Niobium. Or Columbium?

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June 21, 2010
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In our latest installment of our Strategic Metals series, we look at niobium, a steel-making metal that could have the potential for so much more.

 

 

 

When it comes to a metal, what's in a name?

Some would like niobium to be called "columbium"—and, in fact, still continue to call it that. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) still lists its Mineral Commodity Summaries and Minerals Yearbook entries for the metal as "Niobium (Columbium)." And a goodly number of others in the world of metals also prefer the old name, columbium.

It makes sense for Americans, after all, since columbium refers to the provenance of the mineral sample containing the element sent to Charles Hatchett in the U.K. back in the late 18th century. It was that sample from which he discovered the new element in 1801.

For others, however, niobium's name is not as important as its utility; the metal is used in a variety of modern industries—particularly steel making, where it's a crucial ingredient in the construction of automobiles, oil pipelines and even airplanes.

 

What Is Niobium?

Niobium—named after Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus in Greek mythology—is the 41st element in the periodic table. It nestles between zirconium on its left and molybdenum on its right, and is directly above tantalum. (In the early days after its discovery, niobium was often indistinguishable from tantalum, somewhat like identical twins; hence its name as an offspring of Tantalus.)

As a pure metal, niobium is ductile, white, shiny and soft. It has a number of both interesting and useful qualities.

In particular, it is:

 

  • Superconductive, when cooled sufficiently
  • Corrosion resistant, imparting resistance to corrosion when used in alloys
  • A versatile additive, imparting strength and toughness when used in alloys, as well as high-temperature resistance and great ease of forming and welding

 

As an oxide, niobium has a high index of refraction and high dielectric constant, and it increases light transmittance.

 

Whence Niobium?

According to the latest figures (2009) from the USGS, Brazil remains, by far, the world's largest producer of niobium. Canada remains a small but significant producer as well.

 

Niobium - Global Production (Tonnes Niobium Content)

Niobium Content - Mass of metal produced: Nb2O5 is 69.904 percent niobium

e - Estimated

Source: USGS

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