Why is niobium becoming increasingly important?
In the past few years there has been a notable shift in the exploration and utilization of alternative minerals for battery technology, driven by the imperative to reduce dependence on critical elements like cobalt, which are also linked to human rights abuses and environmental destruction.
One promising development in this endeavor is the emerging exploration in use of niobium in batteries. Considered a transition metal, niobium (Nb) has been getting more attention as a material that is being increasingly used for the development of next-generation batteries.The appeal lies in its abundance, relative to scarce elements like cobalt, as well as its lower environmental impact.
Niobium usage in batteries
Due to its conductivity and durability, so far niobium has mostly been applied in iron and steel production (as ferroniobium), in the superconducting materials industry (due to its temperature via its compounds) and wider use in the aerospace, atomic energy, medical and electronics industries.
In the quest for more optimized batteries and enhanced performance, where materials chemistry is key, niobium has been seen as playing a decisive role in achieving the demands for batteries with better performance, fast charging capabilities, and longer durability, while maintaining safety as a number one priority.
Some of the explored uses of niobium in batteries include serving as a dopant and coating material, enabling the development of cobalt-reduced or cobalt-free cathodes with superior performance, enhanced electronic conductivity, and prolonged stability. Moreover, niobium contributes to formulating innovative anode materials, addressing the need for high power, fast charging, broad operational temperatures, extended lifespan, and heightened safety standards in batteries. A few leading companies in the space are Echion Technologies, Nei Corporation, Nyobolt and Battery Streak on the anode side, and NanoOne on the cathode side.
Is niobium a critical mineral and how is it regulated?
It’s clear that niobium is getting increased attention and recognition, given the updates in regulatory landscapes.
It is considered a critical mineral, and its regulation has been increasingly scrutinized in recent years. In the European Union (EU), niobium has been listed on the 5th Critical Raw Materials List which confirms its strategic importance. It is separately regulated within the EU Conflict Minerals Regulation. The regulation aims to ensure responsible sourcing of minerals from conflict-affected and high-risk areas, especially as niobium and tantalum ores and concentrates go hand in hand.
Some key regulations which should be considered when speaking of niobium in the EU include:
- Critical Raw Materials Act: In November 2023, the EU reached a provisional agreement on this act. It includes a set of actions in order to ensure the European Union’s secure and sustainable access to critical raw materials, which is essential for the EU to succeed in its green transition. In addition there is a separate list with 16 strategic raw materials for the EU (link - Annex I).
- EU Conflict Minerals Regulation: This regulation imposes due diligence obligations on EU mineral importers, requiring them to identify and assess risks in their mineral supply chain and implement strategies to respond to these risks. The regulation also includes guidelines for economic operators to apply the criteria for the identification of conflict-affected and high-risk areas.
- REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals): This EU regulation governs chemicals, including metals like niobium, that are supplied in a quantity of more than 1 tonne per year in the EU. The end goal is to protect human health and the environment from the risks posed by chemicals by creating awareness and sharing more information. Any company that is importing or manufacturing in a quantity bigger than the stated above, needs to register the substance and adhere to the regulation details for the registration and reporting process.
- EU Battery Regulation: The EU Battery Regulation, also known as the EU New Batteries Regulation, aims to regulate the entire life cycle of batteries, from production to reuse and recycling, and ensure that they are safe, sustainable, and have a low carbon footprint. It also includes a set of requirements on the due diligence side, requiring companies subject to it to provide information on the battery materials origin and respective market transactions through their traceability or chain of custody systems. It includes a requirement for Battery Passports which is only applicable to electric vehicle batteries, LMT batteries and industrial batteries with a capacity above 2kWh. This digital record should include a carbon footprint declaration, proper labeling and information on the due diligence aspects as well as individual battery usage data. To find out more about the regulation, visit this page.
While niobium is not specifically mentioned in the list of raw materials and risk categories stemming from the EU Battery Regulation, it is considered a critical raw mineral under the EU’s critical minerals list and can potentially be subject to the regulation's due diligence requirements for raw materials used in battery production. Starting from August 2025, companies who surpass a certain net turnover threshold will have to provide mandatory information on due diligence for their batteries. Amongst the requirements this involves the setup and implementation of a Battery Due Diligence Policy, requirement for publishing of an Annual Battery Due Diligence report as well as the establishing and operating of a internal traceability or chain of custody system that should identify the origin of battery materials, their market transactions upstream, as well as their weight in the battery.
As niobium gains more attention and recognition, it is expected that its regulation will continue to evolve and become more stringent to ensure responsible sourcing and minimize the risk of conflict minerals financing.
On a global level, there is also the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas, which provides recommendations for companies to conduct due diligence on their mineral supply chains to ensure responsible sourcing. This refers to the 3TGs (tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold), also called conflict minerals, which are sourced from conflict-affected regions. As in some of these regions tantalum and niobium ores are bound together, the need for due diligence and traceability for niobium should be also taken into account.
In the USA, niobium is also eligible for the New Advanced Manufacturing Production Credit established by the Inflation Reduction Act , which incentivizes the domestic production of various components, including applicable critical minerals used in renewable energy generation, storage, and related manufacturing.
A number of countries, for instance the UK, are already developing or have published their own Battery Strategies, with the aim to encourage development of battery materials domestically, address supply chain challenges as well as the increasing demand for clean energy.
The global outlook for niobium
In a recent report by Mordor Intelligence, the Niobium market size was projected to be 97.21 kilotons in 2023, with an anticipated increase to 156.01 kilotons by 2028, reflecting a robust Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 9.92% over the next five years.
The primary increase in demand is attributed to its widespread use in the steel industry, driven by the growing preference for sustainable and lightweight materials, particularly with reduced CO2 footprints. Additionally, the development of next-generation batteries is expected to contribute significantly to this growth. These trends are closely tied to the upswing in construction activities, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, and the emphasis on e-mobility and energy storage technologies, serving as pivotal factors driving demand during this period.
In terms of niobium sources and producing companies, the market appears consolidated, with key players such as CBMM, CMOS, Magris Performance Materials, and NioCorp Development dominating. Notably, Brazil, Canada, and several African countries are major contributors in terms of niobium resources. It's worth noting that, owing to the fact that you can derive niobium from more than one mineral resource, entities engaged in tantalum refining have the capability to produce niobium as a byproduct of their refining processes. This means that companies primarily focused on tantalum operations could find it compelling to explore the potential of niobium and consider expanding their production lines to incorporate this valuable resource.
Within the battery industry, we also notice the increasing prevalence of vertical integration, primarily driven by the need to secure raw materials. This trend is mirrored in the niobium sector, as evidenced by recent acquisitions with niobium producers involving battery component or pack producers.
The traceability component - Why is it important?
As niobium activities increase and new mining projects emerge, it is crucial to consider the potential impact and align strategies with sustainability and regulatory requirements from the outset.
With this in mind, niobium traceability is particularly important for several reasons:
- Supply Chain Integrity: Niobium is becoming a critical component in the development of advanced batteries, especially in formulations for cathodes and anodes. Ensuring the traceability of niobium throughout the supply chain is crucial to maintaining the integrity of the materials used in battery production. This helps prevent the inclusion of materials from questionable or unethical sources that may be associated with human rights abuses or environmental degradation.
- Compliance with Regulations: The battery industry is subject to various regulations, and traceability is essential for compliance with standards and regulations related to responsible mineral sourcing.
- Consumer and Investor Confidence: As consumer and investor awareness of ethical and sustainable practices increases, companies that can demonstrate transparent and traceable supply chains are likely to enjoy greater confidence and trust.
- Environmental Impact: Traceability allows for monitoring and mitigating the environmental impact associated with niobium extraction and processing. Companies can adopt sustainable practices and make informed decisions to reduce their ecological footprint throughout the niobium supply chain.
- Risk Management: Traceability helps companies identify and manage risks associated with their supply chains. This includes mitigating geopolitical risks, complying with changing regulations, and addressing any potential disruptions that could impact the availability of niobium for battery production.
Proactive measures in these areas can lead to enhanced supply chain integration and a more advantageous market position for niobium products, ultimately resulting in pricing premiums. Therefore, prioritizing traceability and stability right from the start is seen as important for both junior mining companies and established players looking to differentiate themselves in the market.
How can we help
At Minespider we play a pivotal role in enhancing traceability with our leading blockchain-based platform. Through our combination of regulatory experts and the ability to leverage our blockchain technology, we help companies establish a transparent and tamper-proof record that can track the whole journey of niobium from mining operations to its incorporation in batteries.
Our platform facilitates the creation of a verifiable and auditable supply chain, providing records that niobium used in batteries or other applications adheres to ethical and responsible sourcing standards. Through these records, such as a Product Passport, you can provide your stakeholders, including manufacturers and consumers, with a clear understanding of the niobium's origin, extraction conditions, and processing stages.