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Mineralium Deposita

, Volume 49, Issue 8, pp 1025–1047 | Cite as

Geology, market and supply chain of niobium and tantalum—a review

  • Duncan A. R. Mackay
  • George J. Simandl
Article

Abstract

Tantalum (Ta) and niobium (Nb) are essential metals in modern society. Their use in corrosion prevention, micro-electronics, specialty alloys and high-strength low-alloy (HSLA) steel earns them a strategic designation in most industrialised countries. The Ta market is unstable due in part to historic influx of ‘conflict’ columbite-tantalite concentrate, or “Coltan,” that caused Ta mines in Australia and Canada to be placed on care and maintenance. More recently, the growing appetite of modern society for consumer goods made of ‘conflict-free’ minerals or metals has put pressure on suppliers. Pegmatites, rare-element-enriched granites, related placer deposits and weathered crusts overlying carbonatite and peralkaline complexes account for the majority of Ta production. Several carbonatite-related deposits (e.g. Upper Fir and Crevier, Canada) are being considered for potential co-production of Ta and Nb. Pyrochlore (Nb–Ta), columbite-tantalite (Nb–Ta), wodginite (Ta, Nb and Sn) and microlite (Ta and Nb) are the main ore minerals. Approximately 40 % of Ta used in 2012 came from Ta mines, 30 % from recycling, 20 % from tin slag refining and 10 % from secondary mine concentrates. Due to rapid industrialisation and increased use of Nb in steel making in countries such as China and India, demand for Nb is rising. Weathered crusts overlying carbonatite complexes in Brazil and one hard rock carbonatite deposit in Canada account for about 92 and 7 % of Nb world mine production, respectively. Since the bulk of the production is geographically and politically restricted to a single country, security of supply is considered at risk. Other prospective resources of Nb, beside carbonatites and associated weathered crusts, are peralkaline complexes (e.g. Nechalacho; where Nb is considered as a potential co-product of REE and zirconium). Economically, significant deposits of Ta and Nb contain pyrochlore, columbite-tantalite, fersmite, loparite and strüverite. Assuming continued elasticity of Ta and Nb prices and that the law of the supply and demand applies, new sources of these metals can be developed. In the long term, there is no need to worry about Ta and Nb availability. Temporary disruptions in Ta and Nb supply are possible and could be difficult to cope with, so new sources of supply may be developed to diversify geographic sources of supply for strategic reasons.

Keywords

Niobium Tantalum Rare-elements Strategic metals Pyrochlore Columbite Tantalite 

Notes

Acknowledgements

This project was funded by the Targeted Geoscience Initiative 4 (TGI4), a Natural Resources Canada programme carried out under the auspices of the Geological Survey of Canada. The Geoscience BC scholarship to the first author is greatly appreciated. The authors would also like to thank Pearce Luck (British Columbia Geological Survey) for his help in drafting figures and for his comments and suggestions. Dr. Reimar Seltmann provided valuable discussion regarding Orlovka, Beauvoir and Zinnwald-Cinovec-type mineralization. Suggestions by David L. Trueman (consulting geologist) and two anonymous reviewers are greatly appreciated.

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Earth and Ocean SciencesUniversity of VictoriaVictoriaCanada
  2. 2.British Columbia Ministry of Energy and MinesVictoriaCanada

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