Niobium Chemical Properties

NiobiumIs formerly known as columbium, is a chemical element with the symbol Nb formerly Cb, and atomic number 41. It is a light grey, crystalline, and ductile transition metal. Pure niobium has a hardness similar to that of pure titanium, and it has similar ductility to iron. Niobium oxidizes in the earth’s atmosphere very slowly, hence its application in jewelry as a hypoallergenic alternative to nickel.

It was first discovered in 1801 by the English chemist Charles Hatchett, who called the element columbium in honour of the country of its origin, Columbia being a synonym for the United States. In 1844 a German chemist Heinrich Rose, discovered what he considered to be a new element occurring along with tantalum and named it niobium after Niobe, the mythological goddess who was the daughter of Tantalus. After considerable controversy it was decided that columbium and niobium were the same element.


Niobium is roughly 10 times more abundant in the crust of the Earth than is tantalum. Niobium, more plentiful than lead and less abundant than copper in the Earth’s crust, occurs dispersed except for relatively few minerals. Niobium is used in various superconducting materials. These superconducting alloys, also containing titanium and tin, are widely used in the superconducting magnets of MRI scanners. Other applications of niobium include welding, nuclear industries, electronics, optics, numismatics, and jewelry. In the last two applications, the low toxicity and iridescence produced by anodization are highly desired properties. Niobium is considered a technology-critical element.

Physical Characteristics

  • It is a lustrous, grey, ductile, paramagnetic metal in group 5 of the periodic table, with an electron configuration in the outermost shells atypical for group 5. (This can be observed in the neighborhood of ruthenium (44), rhodium (45), and palladium (46).
  • It is thought to have a body-centered cubic crystal structure from absolute zero to its melting point, high-resolution measurements of the thermal expansion along the three crystallographic axes reveal anisotropies which are inconsistent with a cubic structure.
  • It becomes a superconductor at cryogenic temperatures. At atmospheric pressure, it has the highest critical temperature of the elemental superconductors at 9.2 K. It has the greatest magnetic penetration depth of any element.
  • In addition, it is one of the three elemental Type II superconductors, along with vanadium and technetium. The superconductive properties are strongly dependent on the purity of the niobium metal.
  • When very pure, it is comparatively soft and ductile, but impurities make it harder.
  • The metal has a low capture cross-section for thermal neutrons; thus it is used in the nuclear industries where neutron transparent structures are desired.

Chemical Characteristics of Niobium

  • The metal takes on a bluish tinge when exposed to air at room temperature for extended periods. Despite a high melting point in elemental form (2,468 °C), it has a lower density than other refractory metals.
  • Niobium is slightly less electropositive and more compact than its predecessor in the periodic table, zirconium, whereas it is virtually identical in size to the heavier tantalum atoms, as a result of the lanthanide contraction.
  • As a result, niobium’s chemical properties are very similar to those for tantalum, which appears directly below niobium in the periodic table. Although its corrosion resistance is not as outstanding as that of tantalum, the lower price and greater availability make niobium attractive for less demanding applications, such as vat linings in chemical plants.