The Department of the Interior published on May 18, 2018, a list of 35 mineral commodities considered critical to the economic and national security of the United States. These minerals have been designated as critical to the US’s national interest in part because of their potential military and industrial applications.
The list includes- Scandium that can be worked at high temperatures, making its role in jet engines ‘a very real future possibility’, according to NioCorp. Currently it is used to reinforce and strengthen aluminium. Niobium serves a similar purpose, making steel stronger, lighter and more corrosion-resistant, producing high-strength, low-alloy steels. Unlike the former metals, niobium is listed as both a critical and a strategic mineral, signifying its importance to the US, as well as its difficulty to produce.
Niobium (Nb) is a lustrous grey, ductile transition metal, with a high melting point and relatively low density; it also has super conducting properties. Previous to 1950 it was also called columbium (Cb). Niobium steels are used on pipelines, transportation (cars) and structural applications (bridges and buildings). Niobium is in high demand by automakers, aerospace companies and a host of other industries. According to the World Steel Association, $9 of niobium used in car manufacturing will reduce the mass by 100kg, and introduce a 5% fuel efficiency; 300grams used in a mid-sized car reduces the weight by 200kg (CBMM). The addition of 0.02% (200g) Nb to a tonne of steel can increase its strength by up to 30%.
Brazil accounts for about 85 percent of the world’s supply. Canada had the second largest Nb reserves in the world in 2016, with world Nb mining production being 64300 t, of which Brazil contributed a 90% share, or 58000 t. Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship sought to protect strategic natural resources such as oil and minerals from foreign interests, favoring state companies to develop them instead. Thus he was outraged when that same year China Molybdenum Co Ltd (CMOC) bought a niobium mine just 125 miles away from the CBMM facility. “The world talks a lot about Silicon Valley, right?” Bolsonaro says in the video. “I dream, who knows, that one day, we’ll also have a Niobium Valley.” Bolsonaro is believed to be the first presidential candidate to make niobium a campaign issue. In a nationally televised interview in August, he criticized the CMOC purchase.
China’s purchase two years ago of a small Brazilian niobium mine has the Bolsonaro agitating to block other foreign purchases of assets deemed strategic. What is more, Brazil’s CBMM itself is 15 percent owned by a consortium of five Chinese companies: Baoshan Iron & Steel Co Ltd (Baosteel); CITIC Group; Anshan Iron & Steel Group Corp; Shougang Corp; and Taiyuan Iron & Steel Group Co Ltd.
Nb as well as Ta are transition elements of Group 5 of the IUPAC Periodic Table. Due to their properties such as high melting points, they are classified as refractory metals (Bauccio 1993). Nb and Ta have similar chemical properties, are co-located in natural deposits and are occasionally referred to as ‘twins’. The abundance of Nb and Ta is linked due to their chemical similarity. In the metal extraction process, the challenge is not only to separate foreign elements, but to separate Nb and Ta. The most important minerals from an economic point of view are those of the columbite-tantalite group followed by the pyrochlore group (Crockett and Sutphin 1993).
Nb is also used in some grades of superalloys. These alloys are designed for high-temperature applications such as turbine blades for aerospace engines or power generation.
Niobium-based connector allows passage of data and electricity underwater for a variety of applications
Northrop Grumman Corporation has signed its first non-exclusive agreement to manufacture niobium-based connectors (NiobiCon) specifically designed for harsh environments. NiobiConTM is a new way of making electrical connections underwater that enables power transfer and data exchange without using seals, oil or moving parts. This technology was developed to address the inefficient recharging of unmanned vehicles in underwater environments.
When the niobium connector enters in contact with the water, it creates its own thin isolating layer, which gets scraped off when the connection is made. Once disconnected, the layer instantly regenerates. “NiobiConTM is a patented technology that has global commercial and defense applications,” said Alan Lytle, vice president, undersea systems, Northrop Grumman.
“It is an innovative wet-mateable connector technology we have developed that will not only improve reliability and cost-effectiveness, but also revolutionize the industry. We are excited to take the first step in developing solutions for specific future applications.” Northrop Grumman has entered into an agreement with iCONN Systems LLC, which specializes in the manufacture of connectors for harsh environments as their first non-exclusive licensee. They will work with potential customers to develop more reliable interconnects for both commercial and defense applications.