A team of Chinese geologists has uncovered a deposit of rare metal ore that could revolutionise the country’s steel, aviation, energy and medical industries.
The substance has been dubbed niobabaotite by its discoverers, researchers from the Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology of the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC).
The metal, which consists of several metallic elements, including titanium, barium, iron, chloride and most notably niobium, has caused Beijing officials to sit up and take notice as it may end China’s reliance on importing the valuable material.
Of all the metals that make up the niobabaotite, it is the niobium that has set the geologist’s tongues to wagging. The silvery-grey metal is prized for its strength and conduction properties and is frequently used in the production of temperature-resistant alloys and high-quality stainless steel.
The ultra-versatile substance is found in everything from smartphone circuitries, camera lenses, the supermagnets that power magnetic levitation (maglev) trains, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, and even the Large Hadron Collider in CERN, Switzerland. Niobium is also completely inert inside the human body and is used in pacemakers and hypoallergenic jewellery.
The hoard of niobobaotite ore was unearthed at the Bayan Obo deposit near the city of Baotou, Inner Mongolia, according to an October statement made by CNNC representatives. The site is a hotbed of rare-earth elements, the brownish-black ore now being the 17th new type discovered in the Bayan Obo deposit.
The find could have massive implications for China’s hi-tech industry, which imports roughly 95 per cent of its niobium from abroad, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP). Brazil and Canada currently dominate the extraction and supply of the metal, but the US has recently started processing ore at the Elk Creek Minerals Project in the state of Nebraska.
Depending on the grade and quantity of niobium in the deposit, China could end its reliance on importing the expensive metal from halfway across the globe, said Antonio H. Castro Neto, National University of Singapore professor of electrical and computer engineering.
Demand for the versatile material is set to increase significantly as researchers develop lithium-niobium and graphene-niobium batteries for use in electric vehicles. Battery packs made with niobium are considered far safer than conventional lithium-based cells, which have developed a reputation for bursting into flames whenever they fail.
Niobium EV batteries are also faster charging and have a longer life expectancy than current EV batteries, according to the finance and commodities website, S&P Global.
Research conducted by scientists at the Center for Advanced 2D Materials at the National University of Singapore, found that niobium-graphene batteries could potentially last for up to three decades – 30 per cent longer than lithium-ion packs widely used today.