A historic photograph of an astronaut in a white space suit standing on the moon’s surface, with the lunar lander reflected in the visor of the helmet
Usage of niobium in fields such as aerospace and astronautics has included Nasa’s Apollo programme © Nasa/Getty Images

Among Brazil’s abundant mineral riches — from iron ore and gold to precious stones and copper — is one niche metal that almost no other country can claim to produce at scale: niobium.

The dominant producer, Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração (CBMM), is exploring new applications and believes the chemical element has a key role to play in electric batteries, for such vehicles as buses and trucks.

CBMM reckons its mining and manufacturing complex at Araxá, in Minas Gerais state, is responsible for three-quarters of global niobium supply.

For decades, the metal’s main use has been in alloys to strengthen steel. Very small amounts confer greater toughness, corrosion resistance and higher melting points.

Found in everything from automobile bodies to gas pipelines and atomic reactors, niobium is also used in high-tech devices such as jet engines and hospital MRI scanners.

Amid an international rush to secure raw commodities deemed vital for modern technologies, there is growing scrutiny of the strategic and geopolitical facets to niobium — not least since production is concentrated in just a few places.

The shiny grey metal is ranked the second-most “critical mineral” by the US Geological Survey, which estimates that 90 per cent of total output is from Brazil.

“Our country can be positioned as a very important supplier of materials for the energy transition,” says CBMM chief executive Ricardo Lima. “The most important property we can bring is fast charging,” he explains. “In the battery industry, we really have a great opportunity to be very successful.”

Founded in the 1950s and controlled by the Moreira Salles business dynasty, CBMM’s other shareholders are a Japanese-Korean grouping and a consortium of Chinese steelmakers.

Brazil’s other dedicated niobium mine was purchased by China’s CMOC in 2016. China is the main destination for Brazilian exports of the metal.

A report by the Washington DC-based think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) this year highlights this level of Chinese involvement, and the substance’s potential in military equipment, as reasons for US policymakers to be on alert. “In the grand chessboard of defence geopolitics, niobium has emerged as a piece of paramount importance,” write the researchers. 

With its usage long established in aerospace and astronautics — from the Nasa Apollo programme to SpaceX rockets — they described the metal as “indispensable” for critical components in hypersonic missiles. Capable of travelling five times the speed of sound, the weaponry is being developed by a number of nations, including the US and China.

Henry Ziemer, one of CSIS report’s authors, says action is needed by US authorities to avert any future disruption to niobium supplies. “Niobium has flown under the radar,” he argues. “There hasn’t been a systematic effort from the US to secure the supply chain, align incentives and raise the alarm,” he adds, referring to the degree of Chinese ownership of niobium mines.

CBMM assuages concerns over possible supply issues. Its ability to produce 150,000 tonnes a year of ferroniobium alloy — the main form in which the metal is sold — exceeds worldwide demand, according to the company. “It’s not something critical like it’s rare, or there’s limits on production [or] there could soon be shortages,” says chief technology officer Rafael Mesquita. “There are other deposits in the world.”

“All the management of our company is done here,” adds Lima. “It’s not by the Chinese shareholders, it’s by us. I don’t see any concern about the Chinese.” As to niobium’s role in defence, CBMM executives say it is not a target market.

Still, even though the steel industry is set to remain CBMM’s core customer, the company wants to boost new business lines to 30 per cent of overall revenues by 2030, up from 10 per cent today. It sees areas like advanced glass for solar panels to fungicides and special magnetic materials as promising.

“Niobium is quite a new element compared to others like iron, chromium and molybdenum, so there’s still a lot of applications to be developed,” notes Mesquita. “Instead of a larger [market] share, we want to have a bigger cake”.

Supplying battery-grade niobium oxide for commercial vehicles is key to CBMM’s approach. Next month, it is to unveil the world’s first EV with a battery containing the compound: a prototype bus in partnership with Volkswagen and Toshiba. It hopes that real-life versions will be on the roads by 2025.

In the anode (negative) end of a battery, niobium can replace graphite, enabling quicker charging while reducing the risk of overheating and explosions, CBMM says. “Compared to graphite, it is more expensive,” notes Lima. “But, as you have a longer battery life, if you can drive for a longer range, the final cost of ownership to the customer is better.”

In the cathode (positive) end of nickel-based batteries, the company says small amounts of niobium can lessen the need for cobalt. Amnesty International reports that the mining of it in Africa has led to forced eviction of communities and other human rights abuses. Some electric carmakers have now pledged to reduce cobalt’s usage.

“Cathodes could be quite a significant market over time for niobium,” says Andrew Matheson at metals consultancy CPM Group. “On the anode side, it’s still too early to say there’ll be mass adoption, but it’s a strong prospect. Mining trucks alone could eventually represent as much as the current amount going into steel.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article