When American colonial governor John Winthrop discovered an ore named columbite in 1734, he immediately sent it to his homeland in England. It lingered in the British Museum for decades, until chemist Charles Hatchett analyzed the mineral in 1801. Hatchett discovered that the ore contained a new element, which he named columbium.
Eight years later, another English chemist named William Hyde Wollaston compared columbite with tantalite and erroneously announced that columbium was the same as tantalum. That’s because these two elements have parallel characteristics, appear together in minerals, and are challenging to separate. The similarity in chemical properties between the two places tantalum directly next to niobium in the periodic table.
In 1844, German chemist Heinrich Rose was able to prove that columbite actually contained tantalum and columbium. Rose did this by isolating two similar acids, pelopic and niobic. He also changed the name of the element from columbium to niobium. The latter comes from the Greek name Niobe, the mythological daughter of Tantalus.
However, the element niobium took two decades to fully isolate. The name change did not catch on in the United States until the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry officially recognized niobium as the element’s true name in 1949. Regardless, many metal societies and metallurgists still use the outdated term columbium.
This white, malleable transition metal has a shiny appearance that takes on a bluish tint when in extended contact with room-temperature air. When exposed to air at 392 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, niobium starts to oxidize and can exhibit green, yellow, and blue colors. It requires a protective environment when processed.
Large quantities of niobium are often found in a variety of carbon-silicate rocks, in countries like:
All of these countries house extensive mineral deposits. Niobium is often combined with ferrous and nonferrous metals, including iron and zirconium.
Niobium does not occur freely in nature. It only appears as a part of other minerals. Those deposits that hold tantalum often have niobium as well. The commercial extraction process involves formation of oxide (Nb2O5), followed by reduction via hydrogen or carbon.
As a superconductive element under cryogenic conditions, niobium is useful in the production of superconductive magnets. It is also present in arc-welding rods that are used on stabilized forms of stainless steel. Niobium was an important component in airframe systems for the Gemini space program. This refractory metal is also used in pipeline construction, jet engines, and jewelry.
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