CBMM believes that usage of niobium in EV batteries will provide a new source of growth and the group is investing into new potential applications. In 2019, CBMM’s R&D budget for the batteries segment was around US$10M, representing a considerable proportion on the company’s total R&D budget of U$$40-50Mpy, with the battery budget increasing.
CBMM’s investments include a minority stake in 2DM, a spin-off start-up of National University of Singapore doing research on graphene, a material derived from graphite showing synergies with niobium. CBMM has also been partnering with Toshiba for some years for research on niobium-titanium-oxide (NTO) anodes for EVs. A US$7.2M investment for a pilot plant in Japan has been decided.
More than 90% of all niobium is used by the steel industry, where niobium is used in micro-alloying and acts as a strengthening element. Niobium consumption has increased over the last two decades, benefiting from the rise of China’s steel industry and, in more recent years, niobium has increased its market share at the expense of ferro-vanadium thanks to stable ferro-niobium prices. Although more substitution could occur, future growth is likely to slow as China’s steel production plateaus in the coming years.
With a global market share close to 80%, CBMM is now looking to develop new applications for niobium in order to secure new sources of revenues in the face of weakening steel markets; it sees EV batteries as one possible alternative.
The market for niobium in batteries could possibly reach 5kt of ferro-niobium equivalent (3kt of contained Nb) by the middle of the next decade. Another potential growth market is that of nano-crystalline niobium, currently estimated at 2kt of ferro-niobium equivalent (1.2kt).
These new applications are still very small when compared to CBMM’s total production capacity of 100ktpy ferro-niobium (60ktpy contained Nb). Growth in these markets depends on the progress of technological developments and the economics of commercial-scale ramp-up.
CBMM will expand its production capacity to 150ktpy ferro-niobium in Q4 2020 (90ktpy contained Nb), justified by sustainable demand growth coming from the steel industry. The group may also consider a further expansion to 225ktpy ferro-niobium (135ktpy Nb). No doubt, this incremental investment will depend on the future development of the steel industry in China, but it will also depend on whether CBMM’s expectations for new niobium applications materialise.
Roskill’s NEW Niobium: Outlook to 2029 report was published in December 2019. Click here to download the brochure and sample pages for the report, or to access further information.