Element 41 was discovered in England in 1801 by Charles Hatchett, who called it columbium.
The present name of the metal is due to Heinrich Rose, a German chemist, who when separating it from tantalum, identified it as a new element and named it after Niobe, the daughter of the mythological King Tantalus.
The earliest information about the use of niobium dates to 1925 when it was used to replace tungsten in tool steel production. At the start of the 1930s, niobium began to be used in the prevention of intergranular corrosion in stainless steels.
Until the discovery of pyrochlore deposits at the beginning of the 1950s almost simultaneously in Canada (Oka) and in Brazil (Araxá), the use of niobium was limited by the known resources, once it was a sub-product of tantalum. With the primary production of niobium, it became plentiful and an important element in the development of today's engineering materials.
In the 1950s, with the start of the space race, there was a significant increase in interest in niobium due to its characteristics as the lightest refractory metal. Niobium alloys such as Nb-Ti, Nb-Zr, Nb-Ta-Zr were created for use in the aerospace and nuclear industries, and for applications involving superconductivity. Magnetic resonance imaging devices for medical diagnosis use super conducting magnets made with NbTi alloy. Aeronautic superalloys also use niobium. Of these, the most important is IN718, which was introduced in 1966. Since then IN718 has been perfected and is currently used in most modern aircraft and stationary turbines.
Niobium improves steel strength and toughness simultaneously, allowing the concept of light design structures with higher safety.
Another important development, microalloyed steel, occured in the 1950s. Studies undertaken in England at Sheffield University, and United Steels, in the United States, turned the concept of microalloyed steel into an industrial reality when Great Lakes Steel entered the market in 1958 with a series of steels containing nearly 400 grams of niobium per ton and exhibiting characteristics (strength and toughness) that up until then were only possible with much more expensive steel alloys.
The discovery that a tiny amount of niobium added to plain carbon steel significantly improved its properties led to the widespread use of the microalloy concept with major economic benefits for structural engineering, transportation, oil and gas exploration, and car making.
Nowadays, microalloyed steels represent 75% of niobium consumption.
They are sophisticated products developed from physical metallurgical principles that reflect the collaborative potential of research and development undertaken in industry and in university laboratories.
Scientific understanding has been essential to element 41.
Advances have extended niobium's applications in steels, superalloys, intermetallic materials and Nb alloys, as well as in composites, coatings, nanomaterials, optoelectronic devices and catalysts.
The Charles Hatchett Award, sponsored by CBMM, recognises the developments in the novel application of niobium technology.
Niobium Video Library
A number of videos to support the dissemination of research results and technical information on the science and technology of niobium have been produced. Please visit the Niobium Video Library to find out more.