Demand for ferroniobium has increased considerably over the past two years. A tight vanadium market coupled with the introduction of new rebar standards in China caused ferrovanadium prices to spike in 2018. This prompted unexpected levels of substitution. Chinese steel makers started to use ferroniobium in Grade 3 rebar which, coupled with strong demand for ferroniobium in line pipe and automotive applications, meant that imports into China (and exports out of Brazil) reached record highs.
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.
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 its use of steels over the last few decades and should remain the driver in the years to come. Niobium intensity of use is relatively low in several large, steel-producing nations, such as China, but also India and Southeast Asia. The capacity for an increase in niobium intensity of use and a potential increasing usage in long products (rebar) provide an area of potential growth in niobium demand. With Chinese regulations now requiring higher ferroalloy loadings in construction, the outlook for ferroniobium and ferrovanadium demand, looks positive.
Almost all ferroniobium supply is from three industrialised producers, two in Brazil and one in Canada. By far the largest is Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração (CBMM), which operates a pyrochlore mine and processing plant near Araxá in east-central Minas Gerais state in Brazil. While historically the company has operated comfortably below operational capacity, recent increases in demand translated into rising operating rates and prompted an increase its ferroniobium capacity by 50% over the period to 2021. The other major producers, Magris Resources in Canada and China Molybdenum in Brazil are thought to be operating at close to capacity.
In addition to expansion at current operations, there are numerous niobium projects in the pipeline, some of which could come on-stream over the coming years. However, while some have released feasibility studies, none have started construction.
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.