Niobium, which was previously known as Colombium, is a chemical that is ranked 41 in the periodic table. It is a gray metal that turns bluish when oxidized. Niobium is used in the manufacturing of high grade steel because it gives steel strength, weldability, and formability. Niobium is also used to produce cobalt-, iron-, and nickel-based super alloys in proportions as high as 6.5%. An example of a super alloy is Inconel which is made up of 3.1% of niobium. Niobium is quickly becoming a “strategic metal” due to its importance in defense and aerospace. It is also used to make jewelery and as a super conductor. The mineral called pyrochlore is the main commercial source of niobium. Major world producers of niobium include Brazil, Canada, Australia, Rwanda, Nigeria, and Mozambique.
The world’s Largest Producers of Niobium
Brazil is the highest producer of niobium. The Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração (CBMM) is the company behind the mining and processing of the tons of niobium in Brazil. By 2013, CBMM controlled 85% of the world’s production of niobium. In 2012, the country’s production slightly decreased to 50,000 tons annually. Currently, the measure of niobium produced by Brazil is at 40,000 metric tons per year. The city with the largest deposit of niobium is called Araxá. It is located in the Minas Gerais state where CBMM’s headquarters is also situated.
The niobium in Canada is owned by a company called IAMGOLD. The country is the second largest producer of this rare metal at 4,167 metric tons per annum. The amount represents just about 9% of the world’s niobium production. North America solely depends on Canada for its pyrochlore. Niobium is mined in Niobec mines, that is situated in Saint-Honoré-de-Chicoutimi in Quebec, Canada. Commercial production of niobium in the country began in 1976. There are plans to expand the Niobec mines to increase production of niobium. Initially, mining was done through the open stoping underground method, however, the block caving mining method will soon be introduced.
Nigeria has been producing niobium for a long time. In fact, before the discovery of pyrochlore in Brazil, Nigeria was a major producer of niobium. Currently, its production is 35 metric tons every year. However, Nigeria has been proven to have reserves of 14,000 tons of niobium. The areas where niobium mines are located in Nigeria are Jos Plateau, Kano, and Bauchi states. Nigeria is the second highest African producer of niobium after Rwanda. The mining industry in Nigeria contributes 0.3% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
The Process of Extracting Niobium
In most cases, niobium mining is done using the open-pit method. In order to get the concentration of niobium, it is ground and crushed. Afterwards there’s magnetic separation, desliming, and flotation separation. Magnetic separation is done in order to remove magnetite. Niobium is one of the rarest metals on earth. As such, it is worth a lot of money. Recently, the United States has shown interest in starting niobium mining due to its strategic importance.