Niobium

This information has not been updated since 2013 and is provided for general reference purposes. For the latest data, please see Australia's Identified Mineral Resources 2016.

Niobium (Nb) and tantalum are often found together in the same ores, namely columbite ((Fe, Mn)Nb2O6) and tantalite ((Fe,Mn)Ta2O6), because of their very similar chemical properties. Niobium is used with iron and other elements in stainless steel alloys. Niobium-titanium alloy wire is used in the medical sector for magnetic resonance imaging. Niobium alloys are strong and are often used in pipeline construction. The metal is used in superalloys for jet engines and heat resistant equipment. At cryogenic temperatures (minus 150°C), niobium is a superconductor.

Resources

In 2012, Australia¿s Economic Demonstrated Resources (EDR) of niobium remained unchanged at 205 kilotonnes (kt). The bulk of the EDR of niobium is associated with the Toongi deposit (Dubbo Zirconia Project), 20 kilometres (km) south of Dubbo in New South Wales (NSW). This deposit is a sub-volcanic intrusive trachyte body (vertical) with dimensions of approximately 900 by 600 metres which has been drilled out to a depth of 55 metres to provide a Measured Resource (reported in December 2012) of 35.7 million tonnes (Mt) grading 0.46% Nb2O5, and between 55 and 100 metres for an Inferred Resource of 37.5 Mt grading 0.46% Nb2O5.1

The other source of niobium EDR is the Brockman-Hastings deposit located 18km southeast of Halls Creek in Western Australia (WA). This deposit, which is owned by Augustus Minerals Limited, is hosted by a fine-grained volcaniclastic unit informally known as the Niobium Tuff within a sequence of thick volcano-sedimentary rocks. The Niobium Tuff can be traced over a strike length of 3.5km and varies in width up to 35 metres. In September 2011, the company reported a Joint Ore Reserve Committee (JORC) Code compliant resource of 36.2 Mt grading 0.89% ZrO2, 0.36% Nb2O5, 0.018% Ta2O5 which included an Indicated Resource of 27.1 Mt grading 0.36% Nb2O5 and an Inferred Resource of 9.1 Mt grading 0.36% Nb2O5.2 These resources are based on a 1500 parts per million (ppm) Nb2O5 cut-off grade.

Since January 2010, niobium and tantalum zone in the Mount Weld deposits in WA is defined as a separate Crown Polymetallic deposit. In January 2010 Lynas reported a JORC Code compliant resource of 37.7 Mt grading 1.07% Nb2O5, 0.024% Ta2O5 which included an Indicated Resource of 1.5 Mt grading 1.4% Nb2O5 and 0.037% Ta2O5 and an Inferred Resource of 36.2 Mt grading 1.06% Nb2O5 and 0.024% Ta2O5.3

Paramarginal Resources totalling 82 kt are unchanged from 2011 and account for all the Subeconomic Demonstrated Resources. They occur in the Hastings (also known as Brockman-Hastings) (67 kt) in the Halls Creek Orogen and in the Crown Polymettalic (15 kt) deposit in the eastern goldfields in WA.

No changes in the Inferred Resources (418 kt) have been recorded in 2012. Western Australia is the largest holder of Inferred Resources with 70% associated with the Mount Weld and the Hastings deposit, while NSW holds the remaining 30% in  the Toongi deposit.

Accessible EDR

All of Australia¿s EDR of niobium is  accessible.

JORC Reserves

Joint  Ore Reserve Committee (JORC) Code reserves comprise total niobium in Proved and  Probable Ore Reserves as defined in the JORC Code. No changes in reserves of niobium  (115 kt) have been reported in 2012. All are contained in the Toongi deposit.

Exploration

Exploration for niobium is  occurring in WA and NSW, but there are no statistics available on exploration  expenditure for niobium. Alkane Resources Ltd has reported the presence of  mineralisation at the neighbouring Railway prospect (4km northwest of the Toongi ore body), where reverse  circulation drilling in the trachyte body intersected a zone containing grades  ranging from 0.85% to 0.99% ZrO2, 0.21% to 0.23% HfO2,  0.21% to 0.26% Nb2O5, 0.013% to 0.15% Ta2O5  and 0.43% to 0.48% TREO (Y2O3 + REO).4 The report notes that there has been insufficient exploration of the Railway  trachyte to define a mineral resource and it is uncertain that further  exploration will result in the determination of a mineral resource.

During  2011, Hastings Rare Metals Limited completed a 51-hole drilling program at the  Hastings deposit and reported numerous significant intersections of ZrO2,  niobium and rare-earth elements. In November 2012 Hastings announced the acquisition  of additional tenements in the Hastings deposit area to focus on the  exploration of rare-earth element mineralisation.5

Production

Currently  there is no production of niobium in Australia. However, in previous  years niobium concentrates were recovered as a by-product of tantalum mining.

World Ranking

Based on incomplete  world estimates published by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) for  2012, the largest holders of the world¿s niobium resources are Brazil with 4100  kt and Canada with 200 kt.6 USGS data also estimates that world  production of niobium in 2012 was 68.7 kt, which represents an increase of 9%  on 2011 production of 63.4 kt. The production was dominated by Brazil with 63  kt and Canada with 5 kt.

Industry Developments

Historically,  Global Advanced Metals (GAM) Pty Ltd (formerly Talison Minerals) Greenbushes  mine in WA produced tantalite-columbite concentrate for export. Columbite  Fe(Nb,Ta)2O6 is the main niobium ore mineral. The  company¿s primary tantalum plant at Greenbushes has been under care and  maintenance since 2008 while its secondary processing plant treats primary  tantalum concentrates from the Wodgina mine in the Pilbara region of WA. In  January 2011, GAM announced it would resume operations at the Greenbushes and  Wodgina mines but closed them again in early 2012 following softening of demand  for tantalum. In 2011, GAM established an agreement with its neighbour, Atlas  Iron, allowing it to use the infrastructure at the mine to support its iron ore  production.7

Alkane Resources Ltd is in advanced process of  developing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with a niobium consumer to form  a joint venture to produce ferro-niobium from niobium concentrate for  specialised alloy markets from the Dubbo Zirconia Project based on the Toongi  deposit. In May 2011, the company signed  an MoU with a European company committing to the joint venture all of the  niobium produced. The company expects to convert the MoU to an off-take/joint  venture agreement in early 2013.8

Notes

  1. Alkane Resources Limited,  2012. Annual report 2012.
  2. Hastings Rare Metals  Limited, 2011. Announcement to the Australian Securities Exchange 8 September  2011.
  3. Lynas Corporation Limited,  2010. Investor presentation January 2010. Presentation at http://www.lynascorp.com/Presentations/2010/Investor_Presentation_March_10_823534.pdf accessed on 8 October 2013.
  4. Alkane Resources Limited,  2012. Annual report 2012.
  5. Hastings Rare Metals  Limited, 2012. Announcement to the Australian Securities Exchange 28 November  2012.
  6.  
  7. Niobium, 2013. U.S.  Geological Survey, Minerals Commodity Summaries, January 2013.
  8.  
  9. Global Advanced Metals,  2011. World¿s largest tantalum producer resumes operation, 17 January 2012.  Article at www.globaladvancedmetals.com/news/announcements/2011.aspx accessed on 8 October 2013.
  10. Alkane Resources Limited,  2012. Annual report 2012.

McKay, A.D., Miezitis, Y., Porritt, K., Britt, A.F., Champion, D.C., Cadman, S., Towner, R., Summerfield, D., Whitaker, A., Huston, D., Jaireth, S., Sexton, M., Schofield, A., Hoatson, D., Senior, A.B. & Carson, L., 2014. Australia's Identified Mineral Resources 2013. Geoscience Australia, Canberra, Australia. http://dx.doi.org/10.11636/1327-1466.2013