Niobium-rich ore may advance battery technology

7th November 2023
Sheryl Miles

China has unearthed an ore containing a substantial quantity of niobium, a rare earth metal with potential to revolutionise battery technology.

Geologists have identified the metal within niobobaotite, a newly named ore from Inner Mongolia, North China. Niobium is commonly utilised in semiconductors and alloy production for jet engines and rockets due to its excellent conductive properties at low temperatures.

This discovery may alleviate China's reliance on imports, which currently account for approximately 95% of its niobium used primarily in the steel industry. The primary source of niobium has been columbite ore, mined predominantly in nations such as Canada, Brazil, Australia, and Nigeria. With the potential to extract niobium from niobobaotite, China could step towards self-sufficiency, as reported by the South China Morning Post.

The International Mineralogical Association's classification committee has given official recognition to the niobobaotite ore. Furthermore, the China National Nuclear Corporation has overseen the verification process, highlighting its significance for China's nuclear initiatives.

Interest in niobium's role in enhancing lithium-ion battery technology has intensified. The Brazilian Metallurgy and Mining Company (CBMM) is at the forefront, exploring niobium's integration into advanced battery production. Collaborations with universities and battery manufacturers aim to leverage the benefits of niobium in lithium batteries, as reported by Xinhua.

Antonio Castro Neto of the National University of Singapore's Centre for Advanced 2D Materials has reported breakthroughs in niobium-graphene battery technology. These batteries promise an impressive lifespan, estimated at 30 years, and can fully charge in under 10 minutes. Rogerio Ribas, CBMM's global head of batteries, highlighted the safety and efficiency gains, citing the new batteries' resistance to explosion even at high temperatures.

The advent of niobium-graphene batteries could signify a significant shift in the battery landscape, offering greater durability, reliability, and safety than current lithium-ion alternatives. With the potential for a longer performance duration, rapid charging, and an extended lifecycle, the exploration of niobium in battery technology marks a critical step forward in the electronics industry.

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