What is Niobium? - Uses, Information & Facts

Instructor: Sarah Pierce

Sarah has taught high school chemistry and biology, as well as college level chemistry(general, organic, analytical, biochemistry), and has a doctorate in chemistry.

This lesson is about the discovery and properties of niobium. Its various uses in everyday items such as jewelry, airplane parts and MRI machines will be examined. Read on to learn more facts and uses.

Niobium in Jewelry

Have you ever been in a body piercing store at the mall? You will notice there are beautiful color metal rings of niobium. Have you ever wondered how the same pure metal could produce so many different colors? Niobium changes colors when it is anodized, or when a current runs through the metal. When electricity runs through the metal, a thin layer of an oxide forms on the surface. Different voltages produce different layers of oxides. The surface of niobium is colored because of the way light diffracts through the oxide layer.

Niobium has beautiful colors when it is anodized
anodized niobium

Niobium Discovery

Niobium was discovered by the English chemist Charles Hatchett in 1801 when he was investigating a mineral called columbite. He decided to add potassium carbonate and water to the mineral. He heated it up, added acid, and a metal formed. He called the metal columbium.

Hatchett discovered niobium, originally calling it columbium
Charles Hatchett

Some scientists did not believe than Hatchett had discovered a new metal. They simply thought that he had found another element tantalum. The suspicion about the identity of columbium continued until 1844 when the German chemist Heinrich Rose isolated tantalum and columbium from columbite. He chose to name to re-name columbium niobium. He named niobium after Niobe, the daughter of King Tantalus of Greek mythology. This was quite fitting because niobium is directly above tantalum, which was named for Tantalus, on the periodic table.

Rose gave niobium its name
Heinrich Rose

Up until about 1950, niobium was referred to as columbium, with the chemical symbol Cb, in the USA and Europe referred to it as niobium. Eventually, scientists agreed that the element should be called niobium. So, Hatchett has the distinction of being the scientist who discovered niobium, but Rose got to name it.

Niobium Properties

Niobium is a gray metal that is ductile, which means that wires can be formed from it. That is one of the reasons it is used to make jewelry. Niobium is also a superconductor, which means that it has special electrical properties when it is cooled. Specifically, it can conduct electricity with no electrical resistance. This means that when it is cooled, it can conduct electricity very easily.

Niobium is a gray metal
niobium metal

Niobium is a transition metal found in group 5 and period 5 on the periodic table. As a refresher, the groups are the columns on the periodic table and the periods are rows. Niobium has an atomic number of 41, which means that it has 41 protons in its nucleus. It also is the 41st element on the periodic table. Niobium has the chemical symbol Nb.

Niobium is the 41st element on the periodic table
periodic table

Uses of Niobium

We've already talked about how niobium is used in jewelry because it can form rainbows of color. Another reason niobium is used in jewelry is because it is hypoallergenic, which means not many people have allergic reactions to it. It's also used in medical applications such as pacemakers and prosthetics because of its hypoallergenic properties.

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