CBMM, the world's dominant niobium producer, has partnered with technology companies to develop niobium-bearing lithium-ion batteries, which it says offer enhanced stability and significantly faster charging times than batteries currently used in the electric vehicles, powertools and robotics sectors. The plan is to use niobium to stabilize nickel-based batteries and use less high-priced cobalt.
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The Brazil-based miner and processor is developing projects to start market trials in H2 2021 with Japan's Toshiba for niobium-titanium oxide anode cells and also with a Chinese partner and a UK start-up for niobium-tungsten oxide cells, Rogerio Marques Ribas, head of CBMM's three-year old battery program, told S&P Global Platts in an interview.
A niobium-graphene battery product is in an earlier stage of development with Singapore's 2DM, while a project to develop cathode material is underway with Canadian technology company Nano One. Strategic investments are being discussed with spin-offs of Cambridge University in the UK and of UCLA in California, including in fast-charging technology, Ribas said.
CBMM is also building a $3 million pilot plant at its Araxa mine and processing plant in Minas Gerais state, southeast Brazil, to produce niobium oxide specifically for battery applications. Confident on a leap in the market for niobium batteries and cathode material, the company expects to boost its overall niobium oxide sales from current levels of around 100 mt/year to at least 45,000 mt/year in 2030.
"End-users [in the niobium battery area] will buy from our customers, who are already discussing contracts with their clients," Ribas said. "We believe there's a new market."
Charging in less than 10 minutes
Charging times for niobium-bearing nickel-based batteries are less than 10 minutes, without risk of damage or explosion, compared to 3-8 hours for more typical lithium-ion batteries, because niobium replaces graphite in the battery, Ribas said. Niobium batteries may be half the size of carbon-based batteries, but their lower energy density gives a driving range of 350 km, instead of 500 km. End price for the two types of battery should work out much the same, $100/kwH. "The magic number to break even with the internal combustion engine," according to Ribas.
"Battery technology is a game of compromise: we don't yet have a technology that can deliver all the properties that end-users are looking for. To have some advantages you pay a penalty on others," he said.
Currently CBMM's flagship product is ferroniobium, of which it has capacity to produce 150,000 mt/year for the steel industry, accounting for 75% of the company's revenues of 6.98 billion Brazilian real ($1.37 billion) in 2020.
"The steel industry, including the high strength alloys steel segment, will be our core business for at least 10 years, but we're looking to diversify," Ribas said. "Our strategic plan is that batteries could make up 25% of our revenue 10 years from now."
Mining executives noted growing market interest in niobium, with potential for new projects to emerge in China, in Canada -- where project developer NioBay Metals Inc. also intends to invest in niobium batteries technology -- and in Greenland.
Eldur Olafsson, CEO of junior miner AEX Gold Inc., with an exploration license for niobium and other metals in Greenland, noted the energy transition is now demanding lesser known minerals, produced by few companies, where supply may be limited due to a decade-long slump in mining investment. "All of a sudden we're finding that minerals such as niobium, rhodium and palladium may be in short supply and demand is taking off; if we want a green future we need these minerals", Olafsson said in a June 18 interview.
According to Roskill principal analyst, steel alloys, Erik Sardain, the market for niobium-bearing EV batteries, primarily cathodes and to a lesser extent anodes, could take off only in 2024-25. "CBMM is already marketing Nb oxides used for lenses and superconductors for MRI machines but EVs represent a major potential market. As dependent of whether or not the technology will be successfully developed, it is difficult to have an accurate assessment." he said. "But they probably wouldn't invest so much if they hadn't done their homework."
CBMM is investing around $35 million a year in niobium technology, including $11 million/year in battery development.
CBMM is owned 70% by the Brazilian Moreira Salles group, active in the banking sector, 15% by a Chinese consortium and 15% by a consortium of Japanese and South Korean investors.
Rapid charging appears to be one of the major advantages of the niobium-bearing batteries, however, specific charging infrastructure for this would need to be implemented, according to Ribas, with the cost of this ideally borne by government and private-sector players, for instance for e-buses. "You can use the regular chargers as with lithium-ion technology but it takes longer," he said.
It is envisaged that niobium-bearing batteries would have a 20-year battery life, of more than 10,000 cycles -- up to five times more than typical lithium-ion batteries because of the lower stress -- with recycling models to be developed by battery makers, he said.