Uses & Demand

Niobium is a lustrous, gray, ductile metal with a high melting point, relatively low density, and superconductor properties. Tantalum is a dark blue-gray, dense, ductile, very hard, and easily fabricated metal. It is highly conductive to heat and electricity and renowned for its resistance to acidic corrosion.

The electronics industry accounts for about one-half of tantalum consumption, mainly as powder and wire. The largest application for tantalum is in high performance capacitors The roll out of 5G infrastructure and booming electrification in our homes, cars and workspaces, provide a strong industrial and consumer demand base for tantalum.

Electronic capacitors are the leading end use of tantalum owing to tantalum’s particular ability to store and release energy. Because of this ability, components can be exceptionally small and are favoured in space-sensitive, high-end applications, such as telecommunications (for cell phones), data storage (for hard drives), and implantable medical devices (for hearing aids and pacemakers). To date, no substitute has been found for tantalum in electronic devices without loss in performance. Tantalum’s low mechanical strength and high biocompatibility allows it to be used as a coating on stronger substrates, such as stainless steel, for such medical applications as stents to support blood vessels, plates, bone replacements, and suture clips and wire. In addition, tantalum is used to impart strength and high temperature resistance to cracking in the manufacture of superalloys for use in aerospace applications and energy generation. Its resistance to corrosion makes tantalum useful in the chemical industry, generally as a lining to pipes, tanks, and vessels. Tantalum oxide is used to increase the refractive index of lens glass, whereas the hardness of tantalum carbide makes it ideal for cutting tools. 

Tantalum is key in the production of superalloys, a group of polymetallic high performance alloys that possess very high melting temperatures, high strength, and considerable resistance to wear in corrosive and oxidizing environments. superalloys are needed for the manufacture of jet engines, air-based turbines, and land-based turbines. Nickel-tantalum super-alloys used in jet engines provide as another key industrial demand driver.

The leading use of niobium is in ferrous metallurgy. About 75 percent of world niobium production is used by the steel industry for the production of a variety of steel alloys to improve corrosion resistance, strength, toughness, and other properties. Niobium acts as a grain refiner and precipitation hardener in high-strength low-alloy and microalloyed steel, simultaneously improving mechanical strength, high-temperature strength, and toughness and improving corrosion resistance. These steels are used in pipelines, transportation, and structural applications. Appreciable amounts of niobium are contained in superalloys used for high-temperature applications, such as

jet engine components, gas turbines, rocket subassemblies, turbocharger systems, and heat-resisting and combustion equipment. Niobium alloys are also used in the manufacture of superconducting magnets used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and nuclear magnetic resonance instruments (NMRI). A new use of niobium is in a solid niobic acid that acts as a catalyst in the conversion of palm oil to biodiesel. With increased production of biofuels in Brazil and elsewhere, this use of niobium could constitute a significant future market.

Source: USGS