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 Mobility and Aerospace
The shiny, light-grey material is used in pipelines, turbines, infrastructure, and chemical plants. With a melting point of 2,477 degrees Celsius, it
withstands the highest temperatures, yet near absolute zero, it becomes a superconductor. Its chemical properties are also extraordinary: the miracle material is all but impervious to acids— including the legendary aqua regia, a mixture of concentrated nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, which even dissolves the precious metals gold and platinum. And that’s not all: as a component of steel alloys, the metal enhances many mate- rial properties. So it comes as no surprise that it is one of the most sought-after raw materials in the world.
We’re speaking, of course, of niobium (atom- ic symbol Nb), number 41 in the periodic table of elements. Thanks to its unique combination of advantages, this metal has been indispens- able in aerospace applications for many years. It withstands the extreme conditions in rocket engines as well as the searing heat of the space- craft’s re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. It also provides stability in bridges and the towers for high-voltage power lines. And for the past ten years or so, niobium has also been conquering a new market: cars and commercial vehicles.
“There are 300 grams of niobium in the av- erage vehicle today,” says Rodrigo Amado, head of the mobility market segment for the Brazilian company CBMM. Amado would know: CBMM is by far the world’s leading supplier of niobium products and technology. Founded in 1955, the company operates the largest niobium produc- tion plan in the world, in Araxá in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. Some 110,000 tons of the stuff is produced there each year—roughly 80% of total world production. And there is no end to the bounty in sight—the deposits in Araxá alone will suffice for 150 years and more. The main products of CBMM are niobium oxide, which is 99% pure and is used in applications such as lenses and turbines; and ferroniobium, which contains 65% nickel and is of particular interest for automotive uses. CBMM earned US$2 billion with the raw materials in 2018, with the rest of the market shared between two companies from Canada and China.
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