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  • Niobium Goes From Strength to Strength

    Published on May 1, 2013

    London: The global niobium market rebounded quickly from the slump in consumption in 2009 and by 2011 demand had returned to nobiumnear peak levels. Recovery slowed in 2012 but a return to long-term growth is certain.

    Niobium is used mainly as an alloying element for certain types of high-strength and stainless steel, where it is added in very small amounts per tonne, but also has applications in superalloys for aerospace and land-based power generation and in superconductors. In most of the market segments, demand is very closely linked to overall economic trends. In the case of steel, however, a major driver of future demand could be growth in the intensity of use of niobium. Several countries with large steel industries have high forecast rates of growth in production, notably China, India and Russia, but have intensities of use for niobium far below the world average and very much lower than the mature industrial economies. There is significant potential for an increase in niobium demand that is well-above the underlying economic trends that will govern total steel production.

    Even with the anticipated growth in demand for niobium, there is little risk of supply moving into deficit. There is currently sufficient production capacity for ferroniobium and other products, such as high-purity niobium oxide, and that capacity will be increased further by the existing producers.

    Reserves of pyrochlore, the principal niobium mineral, are very large and adequate to support current rates of production for many years. The three main producers and converters of pyrochlore are expanding their capacity for ferroniobium and other downstream products and security of supply is highly unlikely to be an issue in the foreseeable future. The non-pyrochlore segment of supply is comparatively small and based mostly on artisanal or semi-industrial mining in Africa and South America. Although small, this part of primary supply makes up most of the international trade in niobium concentrates and is also a mainstay of the non-steel processing sector. Numerous greenfield niobium projects are in the pipeline. A high proportion are dependent on the market economics for other commodities, such as rare earths, and most will probably not be commercialised before 2017 and will not be major contributors to supply.

    Niobium prices are historically very stable and demand-inelastic. A step increase in prices occurred from the mid-2000s, after which stability was restored. Ferroniobium prices are expected to remain on a gentle upward trend, with few sharp movements, other than in the spot market, which forms a minor part of the overall market. Prices for other niobium products have and will retain a premium over those of ferroniobium.