By R. Bruce Striegler
The world’s second-largest producer of niobium (Nb) is Magris Resources Inc.’s Niobec mine located in Saint-Honoré-de-Chicoutimi in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region. Described as an alloying element in steels and superalloys, niobium is a rare and soft transition metal primarily used in the production of high grade steel. Global production is estimated at about 63,000 tonnes per year. Brazil is the world’s leading niobium producer with more than 80 per cent of global production followed by Canada with nine per cent. The Niobec mine, the sole niobium producer in Canada, was sold in 2014 for $530 million to Toronto Magris Resources Inc.
The niobium market is comparatively new, dating back only a few decades. Demand is driven by overall growth of the global economy, and the demand for superalloys, such as those used in aerospace, nuclear and military applications. Niobium is consumed in very small amounts, fractions of a per cent in terms of gross weight of steel, which nonetheless cause dramatic changes in the characteristics of the steels it is being alloyed with.
Use of niobium has been long-established in many industrial economies. In China, India and Russia there is a developing demand. Use of niobium in steel-making in these countries is currently far below the global average. They also have the highest forecast rates of growth in steel production and there is an anticipation that they will increasingly move from producing mild steel to high-strength low-alloy steel (HSLA). This is the growth area for niobium demand.
Niobium uses primarily in strengthening steels
Steel containing niobium is stronger, lighter, and highly resistant to corrosion. Niobium in the form of ferroniobium and nickel niobium are used in nickel, cobalt, and iron-based superalloys for such applications as jet engine components, rocket subassemblies, heat-resisting and other similar combustion equipment. Another important application for niobium is as an alloying element to strengthen HSLA steels used to build automobiles and high pressure gas transmission pipelines.
An important secondary role for niobium is to provide creep strength in superalloys operating in the hot section of aircraft gas turbine engines. (Engineers explain that under elevated temperatures materials ‘deform’ at a slow rate. This is called ‘creep’, and after a certain amount of deformation, the rate of creep increases, and fractures soon follow.) Niobium is also utilized in stainless steel automobile exhaust systems and in the production of superconducting niobium-titanium alloys used for building MRI magnets. Minor applications include electronic ceramics and camera lenses. Niobium is considered a “strategic metal” by the U.S., deemed essential for U.S. National Security.
A high-value metal found rarely around the world
With no central exchange for niobium, it’s difficult to obtain trading prices, and producers sell directly to steelmakers or trading houses, with prices subject to confidentiality agreements. The U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2015 reports the unit value of U.S. imported ferroniobium between 1990 and 2005 declined from about $20,000 per tonne (pt) to about $13,000 pt. It then rose steadily to about $44,000 pt in 2012, before declining to $40,000 pt in 2014, interrupted only in 2008–09 as a result of the global economic downturn. Although Brazil and Canada are the top exporters of niobium, other sources of niobium ore and concentrate include Australia and a number of African countries.
Forty-three companies in the United States produced niobium-containing materials from imported niobium minerals, oxides, and ferroniobium. The U.S. Geological Survey reports major end-use distribution of reported niobium consumption in the U.S. with steel leading at 79 per cent and superalloys accounting for 21 per cent. In 2014, the U.S. estimated value of niobium consumption was $500 million, as measured by the value of imports. Currently, the U.S. imports 100 per cent of its niobium.
As of 2011, the British Geological Society estimates put global niobium ore reserves (proved and probable) at around 485 million tonnes with more than 93 per cent occurring in Brazil and seven per cent in Canada. From a presentation provided to Canadian Sailings by Camet Metallurgy Inc. of Montreal, world consumption of niobium (ferroniobium) by region show Europe leading (from 2012 statistics) at 25,000 tonnes, or 30 per cent, the Americas at a little over 18,000 tonnes or 22 per cent, China at a little over 18,000 tonnes or 25 per cent and Japan registering about 9,000 tonnes or 11 per cent.
Little in the way of new mine development in the works
Significant U.S. niobium mine production has not been reported since 1959. The U.S. has approximately 150,000 tons of niobium-identified resources, all of which were considered uneconomic at 2013 prices for niobium. Domestic niobium resources are of low grade, some are extremely complex, and most are not commercially recoverable. Based on data for part of 2014, U.S. niobium consumption (measured in contained niobium) was estimated at 10,000 tonnes, 23 per cent higher than 2013 levels.
Vancouver-based NioCorp Developments Ltd. is developing the only known primary niobium deposit in the U.S., near Elk Creek, Nebraska. The Elk Creek project is touted as the highest grade undeveloped niobium deposit in North America. In December 2014, the company completed an infill drilling program providing information on the hydrology, metallurgy, geochemistry and geotechnical properties of the site with the data being used to advance design of an underground mine and ferroniobium production plant for the project, scheduled to commence production in 2017. Niocorp plans to capture significant global market share, targeting a production rate of 7,500 tonnes annually.
In British Columbia, Taseko Mines Ltd., which did not respond for this article, owns the undeveloped Aley Niobium Project in northern B.C. Covering about 433 square kilometres, the site contains 104 mineral claims and following recent exploration, Taseko asserts the project, should it be developed, could produce an average 9,000 tonnes of niobium annually, in the form of ferroniobium, over a lifespan of 24 years. Taseko recently entered an environmental review process for the proposed new $870 million niobium mine.
Australian junior mining company Globe Metals & Mining continues with testing and negotiation with the Government of Malawi for the Kanyika Niobium Project, which will produce high purity niobium pentoxide and tantalum pentoxide powders. In 2014, the company completed testing of the Kanyika demonstration pilot plant at China’s Guangzhou Research Institute of Non-Ferrous Metals. The project shipped a 40-tonne sample from the proposed mine-site to the Chinese research institute. The company says the tests showed ways to improve recovery, improve concentrate grade and revealed ways to enhance the processing plant design. It’s unclear when the company may move ahead with development of the proposed mine.
Cradle Resources Limited, another Australian junior miner is working to become an international niobium development company with its ownership of a 50 per cent interest (and rights to acquire the balance) in the Panda Hill Niobium Project in Tanzania. Located in the Mbeya region in south western Tanzania, approximately 650km west of the capital Dar es Salam, the Panda Hill Project encompasses three granted Mining Licenses totalling 22.1 square kilometres. The site has access to infrastructure, with existing roads, rail, airports and 220kV power. The three granted Mining Licenses are due for renewal in November 2016, and under Tanzanian mining legislation can be renewed for a further ten year period on completion of the approved work programs on the project.
Brazilian company responsible for developing niobium market
Brazil’s CBMM operates the Araxá mine, the largest niobium mine in the world, which suffers from decreasing grades and increasing operating costs. CBMM is credited with the development of applications for the metal. When the Company was founded in the 1950s, there was neither a market nor a manufacturing process for niobium. CBMM created the uses for the element and its market through a program to develop niobium technology and promote the element’s effectiveness by illustrating the advantages that make niobium a super metal.
CBMM’s production techniques are such a closely-guarded secret that the Asian steelmakers that bought a stake in the company, including China’s Baosteel Group Corp. and Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp., have never been allowed to carry out technical due diligence work. The process is complex and capital-intensive and requires multiple refining stages to turn powdery brown earth with just three percent niobium content into an iron alloy with 66 percent purity, which is what global steelmakers buy. CBMM processes 750 tonnes an hour at its site in Araxá, about 350 miles north of São Paulo, On average, only 200 grammes of the niobium alloy are necessary to strengthen a tonne of steel, allowing manufacturers to make lighter, more efficient cars and sturdier bridges and buildings.