Approximately 90% of all niobium used is consumed as ferroniobium in steelmaking. The rest goes into a wide range of smaller-volume but higher-value applications, such as high-performance alloys (which include superalloys), carbides, superconductors, electronic components and functional ceramics.
Almost all ferroniobium supply is from three industrialised producers, two in Brazil and one in Canada, and is derived from the mineral pyrochlore. Little, if any, pyrochlore enters international trade as it is converted into ferroniobium and other products before export. Niobium for non-steel applications is typically from other minerals (columbite, columbite-tantalite etc.) that are mostly produced by artisanal mining in Africa and South America. The supply bases for niobium used in steels are thus, often, different to that used in other end products.
In steel, niobium is used as ferroniobium, mainly in the production of high-strength, low-alloy (HSLA) steels for the construction, automotive and pipeline industries. It is also used in certain types of stainless and heat-resisting steels. Although the unit consumption is very small—fractions of a percent by weight of a tonne of finished steel—the benefits are large. Niobium additions in steel significantly increases strength, so less steel is required overall, which can reduce cost substantially. This has been the basis for the development and growth in the use of steels containing it over the last few decades and should be the driver in the years to come. Niobium intensity of use is low in several large, steel-producing nations, such as China. The capacity for an increase in niobium intensity of use provides an area of potential growth in niobium demand.
Niobium pentoxide (Nb2O5) is the starting product for most specialised non-steel applications. Nickel-based high-performance alloys are used in the aerospace industry, where high-temperature strength is required. Commercial niobium oxide products are generally termed high-purity (optical-grade) oxide to distinguish them from intermediate forms. Niobium is also produced as pure metal along with other alloys typically containing titanium and zirconium. Niobium chemicals have a wide range of applications, e.g. in catalysts and functional ceramics.
Niobium prices are historically very stable. They moved little in the period up to about 2006, when a producer-driven doubling in prices began, and have remained stable at the higher benchmark. Ferroniobium prices, in particular, are fairly demand-inelastic, with the 2009 slump in demand from the global steel industry having only minimal impact on pricing. The outlook for prices is one of gentle but steady increase; spikes are unlikely.