Niobium, #41

Niobium is another one of those elements of the modern world. High-strength steels—like the kinds used to make car frames—need a small percentage of niobium in the alloy. It is also used in superalloys which is the stuff they use to make gas turbines and rocket engines.

If you look at the periodic table, you can see that niobium is in the same family (column) as Vanadium (#23) and Tantalum (#73). Both are used in a variety of alloys. These are hard, shiny, corrosion-resistant, high-melting point metals and they contribute those characteristics to steels and other mixtures.

Niobium is used in jewelry and coins. The Royal Canadian Mint has a series of moon-themed sterling silver collectibles that feature niobium on the reverse:

You can get different colors. A thin film of oxidized niobium is anodized (electrically deposited) on the coin. The thickness determines the amount of light diffracted and the resulting interference patterns, thus the color. Varying the voltage of the anode (hence “anodizing”) in the circuit varies the thickness of the layer.

Cool coin, eh?

Worldwide production of niobium is about 80,000 tonnes. Most of it comes from Brazil. If you want to imagine 80,000 tonnes that’s about how much one average-sized oil tanker (AFRAMAX class, empty) weighs. And just for comparison the world produces annually about 70,000,000 tonnes of aluminum!

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