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China discovers rare earth element set to transform battery technology

Niobium is a strong and silvery metal that is extracted from the mineral columbite. Used in alloys for making parts of jet engines and rockets, niobium is also an essential component in semiconductors. It’s mainly found in abundance in Brazil and Canada, but Chinese geologists have found niobobaotite – a rare earth iron ore with niobium – in the Bayan Obo Mining District in Inner Mongolia.

The niobobaotite ranges in size from 20 to 80 centimeters and contains barium, niobium, titanium, iron, and chlorine. It’s the 13th newly-discovered mineral since the establishment of China’s nuclear geological system 70 years ago, said the geologists in a press release by China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC).

About 85% to 90% of niobium in the world is used for iron and steel production as a form of niobium iron. The steel can increase more than 30% of strength by adding 0.03% – 0.05% niobium.

Why is this significant for China?

Niobium is a superconductor with exceptional current conducting properties at low temperatures. It is also widely used in areas of medical diagnosis, like in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) apparatus and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer for spectral line analysis.

This newfound discovery of niobobaotite means China may not have to import niobium in the near future. The country imports 95% of its niobium requirements. South China Morning Post spoke to Antonio H. Castro Neto, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the National University of Singapore, who said that the “discovery is significant for China since most of the niobium China uses in the steel industry is imported.”

“Depending on the volume and quality of this niobium it could make China self-sufficient,” added Castro Neto.

Moving away from lithium battery

The Brazilian Metallurgy and Mining Company (BMMC), a company specializing in the processing and application of niobium, has in the past partnered with the Chinese steel industry. But there’s a growing interest in niobium technologies for lithium batteries. According to a Xinhua report, CBMM has partnered with more Chinese researchers, companies, and manufacturers to improve the technology.

Tiago Amaral, the manager of the environment and technological support of the CBMM, said that China is the world’s major steel producer and consumer and that niobium technology fits very well in this aspect and the new trend of electric vehicles.

Niobium gets its rarity from the property that it’s a fairly dense element and that its occurrence in the Earth’s crust is valued at only twenty parts per million. The mineral ore has already received its classification from the Commission on New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification (CNMNC) of the International Mineralogical Association (IMA) with an official approval number IMA 2022-127a.


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