Elements of risk – the cost of niobium

Materials World magazine
3 Aug 2015
Grinding coltan

In the latest instalment of Elements of risk, Khai Trung Le considers an often-overlooked side effect to the supply of niobium.

This month’s Elements of risk is a little unusual, regarding both the element in question and why it has been chosen. Niobium, formerly known as columbium, has the highest magnetic penetration depth of any element, and is used in semiconductor magnets found in MRI machines, radars and advanced weaponry, as well as being important raw input into high-strength, low-alloy steel.

Unlike previous elements in this series, including molybdenum and tungsten, niobium actually fell in the British Geographical Survey Risk List between 2011 and 2012, from 6th to 12th, along with its risk rating from 8.0 to 7.6. The supply of niobium is increasingly dependent on Brazil, where 97% of the world’s reserves are found. Interestingly, the USA, EU and China do not produce any niobium and, as such, niobium sources are fiercely contested across the world.

The ugliest side of the demand for niobium, and its periodic table cousin tantalum, is manifest in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where five to seven million lives have been claimed in the conflict since 1996. Swiss theatre director Milo Rau has claimed that the Congo conflict is one of the most extensive economic conflicts in human history, bypassing ethnic or cultural origins.

Speaking to the Guardian ahead of his experimental 14-hour play, the Congo Tribunal, Rau said, ‘Why this war has continued to rage is no longer to do with ethnic antagonism, but commodities like coltan, niobium, or cassiterite, which are seen as essential to our 21st Century lives, and are to be found in abundance in the DRC.’

The mineral wealth of the DRC is estimated at US$24 trillion, making the Congo potentially the richest country in the world. However, the ongoing conflict has served to destabilise the region. Danish journalist Bjorn Williams revealed that Rwanda, which invaded the DRC with Uganda in 1998, was able to produce 83 tonnes of tantalum-niobium minerals, colloquially known as coltan in the region, in 2000, and yet managed to export 603 tonnes. Williams speculated that much of the coltan exported has its origins in the DRC.

The UN stated in its 2011 report Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources in the Congo, ‘The consequences of illegal exploitation has been twofold – (a) massive availability of financial resources for the Rwandan Patriotic Army, and the individual enrichment of top Ugandan military commanders and civilians, (b) the emergence of illegal networks headed by either top military officers or businessmen.’

Not all share the view of niobium as significant in the conflict. The Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center, Belgium, has stressed that undue significance is placed on the global desire for coltan, noting, ‘The DRC has had a sad history of rebellion and civil war […] Racial tension, rather than immediate financial gain, appears to be a root cause of many of these rebellions, even if the eventual financing of these ongoing rebellions is partially at least the result of “expropriation” of mineral producing areas.’

Numerous multinationals publically named by the UN have elected to stop using Congolese tantalum-niobium, and 2012 legislation in the US Dodd-Frank Act compels companies to publically disclose their use of ‘conflict minerals’ that originated in the  DRC or an adjoining country. But with an end to the Congo conflict beyond sight and the use of coltan escalating, niobium will continue to be a hotly contested element.