Element 41 was discovered in England in 1801 by Charles Hatchett when analyzing a sample of rock (columbite) sent to the British Museum from the United States. He called the new element "columbium".
In 1844 Heinrich Rose, a German chemist, mistakenly thought he had discovered a new element while working with tantalite, naming it "niobium" after Niobe, daughter of the mythological King Tantalus.
The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry - IUPAC - adopted "niobium" as the official name of Element 41 in 1950. The earliest information about the use of niobium dates to 1925 when it was used to replace tungsten in tool steel production. At the beginning of the 1930s, niobium began to be used in the prevention of intergranular corrosion in stainless steels.
Geologist Djalma Guimarães discovered the pyrochlore deposit in Araxá in 1953
Until the discovery of pyrochlore deposits at the beginning of the 1950s almost simultaneously in Canada (Oka) and in Brazil (Araxá), the use of niobium was limited due to its scarcity (it was a by-product of tantalum manufacturing from columbite/tantalite ores), which resulted in high cost. With the primary production of niobium, it became plentiful and an important element in the development of today's engineering materials.
With the start of the space race in the 1950s, interest in niobium increased significantly because it is the lightest refractory metal. Niobium alloys such as NbTi, NbZr, NbTaZr and NbHfTi were created for use in the aerospace and nuclear industries. NbTi and Nb3Sn are largely used for superconductivity applications. Magnetic resonance imaging devices for medical diagnosis use superconducting magnets made with these niobium alloys.
Another important development, microalloyed steel, occurred in the 1950s. Studies undertaken in England at Sheffield University and British Steel and in the United States turned the concept of microalloyed steel into an industrial reality when Great Lakes Steel entered the market in 1958 with a series of steels containing nearly 400 grams of niobium per tonne of steel that achieved high strength and toughness properties simultaneously.
The discovery that a tiny amount of niobium added to plain carbon steel significantly improved its properties led to the widespread use of the microalloy concept with major economic benefits for structural engineering, transportation, oil and gas exploration and car manufacturing.
Currently microalloyed steels represent the most important application of niobium. These steels are sophisticated products developed from physical metallurgical principles that reflect the collaborative potential of research and development undertaken in industry and in university laboratories.
Scientific understanding and collaboration have been essential to element 41. Advances have expanded the use of niobium in steels, superalloys, intermetallic materials and niobium alloys, as well as in composites, coatings, nanomaterials, optoelectronic devices and catalysts. And, there is every indication that this list will continue to grow.