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niobium, tantalum, columbite, tantalite, processing, resources, extraction, spiral separation, shaking table, gravity separatioin

Nb-Ta-Minerals

Tantalum and niobium are transition metals with very similar chemical and physical properties. Both show outstanding chemical inertness and thermal refractoriness (melting points at 3020°C and 2469°C respectively).

The major part of niobium produced is used in the production of high strength low alloy (HSLA) steels (main uses in structural, piping and automotive applications) and superalloys used in the aerospace industry while the remainder is sold as niobium carbides (e.g. cutting tools) and chemicals.

There is a variety of widespread emerging applications for tantalum including mobile electronic devices such as laptops and smartphones. The electronic industry is the main consumer of tantalum using up to half of world production, while the other half goes into tantalum metal products, ingots and carbides.

Both, tantalum and niobium exhibit exceptionally high specific performance in capacitors and resistors thereby enabling further miniaturization in electronics. Other hi-tech uses for Ta include use as a sputtering target and in prosthetics while Nb finds applications in superconductors.

In nature tantalum and niobium usually occur together as a result of their chemical similarity, tantalum being present in subordinate proportions. They do not occur in metallic form but are present in a variety of oxidic minerals with columbite-tantalite, pyrochlore, wodginite and loparite being the most important ore minerals.

Major deposits hosted in carbonatite complexes are found in Brazil (Araxá and Catalão) and Canada (Saint-Honoré). Alkaline to peralkaline rocks such as the Illimaussaq complex in Greenland also host significant niobium occurrences. Historically pegmatites located in Canada (Bernic Lake) and Australia (Greenbushes and Wodgina) have been important sources of tantalum. Tantalum is also recovered from placer deposits as a by-product of tin.

Brazil accounts for more than 90% of the global niobium production with Canada and Africa accounting for the rest. CBMM in Brazil holds a near market monopoly for niobium.

Main producers of tantalum are located in Africa (>60%), where it is mined largely in artisanal mining operations in the politically unstable DRC and Brazil (20%), followed by less significant producers in Australia, Canada and Malaysia.

Tantalum and niobium are traded in a variety of forms including carbides, metal powders and other chemicals.