MAC: Mines and Communities

Brazil: Niobium-bearing lithium batteries fast-charge CBMM sales

Published by MAC on 2021-06-21
Source: S&P Global, Reuters, Climate Change News

An obsession of President Jair Bolsonaro and the far right.

Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração (CBMM) announced a dramatic expansion of its overall niobium oxide sales "from around 100 mt/year to 45,000 mt/year by 2030". Miners will put whatever substance into battery packs to increase revenues: the niobium industry is looking to diversify from steel and high strength alloys to niobium-bearing lithium-ion batteries by creating their own fast-charging "cocktails".
How and at what cost these materials would be recycled? It all started with a Nature 2018 academic article by researchers at the University of Cambridge on the use of niobium tungsten oxides for high-rate lithium-ion battery storage.
According to CBMM, adding niobium to batteries allows "fast-charging technology". Rapid charging appears to be the one advantage of niobium-bearing batteries, however, specific charging infrastructure would need to be implemented: "You can use the regular chargers as with lithium-ion technology but it takes longer".

Previous on MAC:

2020-07-25 The Weekend Essay: Brazil's Bolsonaro threatens Amazonia in Niobium battle

CBMM strikes partnerships to pioneer niobium-bearing battery development

18 Jun 2021

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.

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."

'Green' demand

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.

Infrastructure required

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.

Brazil miner CBMM seeks to sell 45,000 tons of niobium oxide by 2030

February 9, 2021

Brazilian mining company CBMM hopes to sell some 45,000 tons of niobium oxide by 2030, turbocharging growth from just 100 tons this year, targeting demand from electric vehicle makers, the company’s vice president told Reuters on Tuesday.

Niobium oxide, a rare metal, can be used in production of batteries, a market expected to boom in the next few years, driven by demand for electric vehicle manufacturers.

Ricardo Lima, CBMM’s vice president, said in an interview that niobium oxide sales would rise to represent about 25% of the company’s revenue by 2030 if its forecasts are met.

Lima added that CBMM is already a market leader in niobium oxide sales, although these have mostly not been marketed at making batteries.

He said the company has a 50% worldwide market share in other uses of the metal, which includes making lenses and superconductors for MRI machines. (Reporting by Marta Nogueira; Editing by David Gregorio)

The Amazon home of Bolsonaro’s mineral fantasy

São Gabriel da Cachoeira, in the state of Amazonas, a 2 hours and 20 minutes flight from Manaus, the state capital, is a green spot in the Amazon rainforest.

Fabiano Maisonnave


For the region’s inhabitants, the town is the heart of a municipality approximately the size of England, inhabited by 23 indigenous peoples.

The world’s largest deposit of niobium can be found a few dozen kilometres from the city – a mineral that has become an obsession of President Jair Bolsonaro and the Brazilian far right.

There are 2.9 billion tonnes of untouched niobium underground. Above them, mountains, rocky formations of varied shapes, orchids and many-hued lakes make up one of the most unique areas in the Amazonian region, far from the endless green plain usually associated with the rainforest.

Before the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic, this reporter and photographer visited the area, known as Seis Lagos (Six Lakes), guided by inhabitants of the Balaio TI (indigenous territory). The communities living in the TI are discussing where their region is better suited to tourism or mining, but their greatest concern is their almost total isolation due to the state of disrepair of the road leading to it, the BR-307.

“Some people would like to extract the minerals, but it’s actually very complex to work that. Others see the potential of ethno and environmental tourism”, says indigenous health worker André Veloso, 32, who guided us, referring to the views of the 350 inhabitants of the territory, belonging to several different peoples.

Again, maps can be misleading. The distance from São Gabriel to the Ya-Mirim community, gateway to Seis Lagos, is a mere 85 km by the BR-307, crossing the line of the Equator. But the federal highway is actually a muddy track that can only be traversed by Toyota Bandeirante four-by-fours. It took us four and a half hours to cover the distance, moving at 19 kph. Cost of the return journey: R$2,000.

Having arrived at the community and spent the night there, we travelled upstream for two hours on the river of the same name. Then came the most exhausting part of the trip: four hours hiking up a mountain.  Along the way, the trees decrease in height as the terrain rises and the ground grows more rocky. Along the way we see the first lake, with green water, at the bottom of a valley.

We camped out for a night beside the Dragão (Dragon) Lake, surrounded by sharp earth-coloured rocks and a forest of medium height trees and bushes, some of them flowering. Mists are common in the area, and when they arrive, they cover everything in a split second.

There are two almost insurmountable obstacles to mining niobium in Seis Lagos. Present legislation precludes mining in Seis Lagos. The site is included in three overlapping protected areas: besides the Balaio TI, it is part of Serra da Neblina National Park and Morro dos Seis Lagos Biological Reserve, belonging to the Amazonas state government. Mining activity is not allowed in any of these places.

Another obstacle to mining the Amazonian niobium is the lack of demand. Every projection drawn up shows the niobium deposits being mined today have enough capacity to supply the world market for many decades to come.

Brazil is already the main worldwide producer of niobium, with 88% of global production, according to the US Geological Survey. Most of the metal comes from CBMM (Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração), controlled by the partner family of Itaú Unibanco. Situated in Araxá (Minas Gerais state), the company estimates its deposits can produce enough niobium for at least another two centuries.

“Mining companies have no interest in Morro dos Seis Lagos,” says geologist Tadeu Veiga, at present a voluntary professor at UnB (University of Brasília). He travelled the region in 1997 as a representative of a mining company. At the time, CRPM (the Brazilian Geological Service) intended to bid for the mining rights in Morro dos Seis Lagos, but the plans never went ahead.

Despite the lack of a market for any increased production, Bolsonaro often uses niobium to justify starting mining operations in indigenous lands. The activity is allowed by the Constitution, as long as it is regulated and follows prior consultation with the peoples involved.

In 2016, while preparing for the presidential campaign, Bolsonaro produced a video about niobium, filmed in Araxá. Holding up a piece of the metal, he stated: “This can give us economic independence.” In another part of his statement he mentioned the demarcation of indigenous lands as a barrier to mining.

The most recent statement was made in June 2019. From Japan, where he was attending the G20 meeting, Bolsonaro, in a Facebook livestream, showed some costume jewellery made of niobium. He said the chain was worth R$4,000, more than if it had been made of gold.

The information is wrong. One gram of gold was worth R$293 at the end of May 2020 –more than the cost of one kilo of ferroniobium, around R$215, CBMM’s most expensive product.

The false idea that niobium could be a magic bullet that would solve the problems of Brazil’s economy comes from the ultranationalist leader Enéas Carneiro, whose ideas influenced Bolsonaro’s thinking. “Only niobium would allow us to have our own currency, backed by it,” he said in an interview in 2006, a year before his death.

In February Bolsonaro sent to Congress a bill opening up indigenous lands to mining. Criticized by most of the indigenous movement, the bill says the indigenous peoples affected would have the power to veto garimpos (artisanal mining projects), but not large mining company projects.

Bolsonaro argued at the time, in an attempt to justify the bill, that: “Indigenous people have a heart, they have feelings, they have a soul, they have needs and desires and are as Brazilian as we are.”

Combined with Bolsonaro’s instructions to put a brake on the actions of Ibama (the state environmental agency), the promise of legalizing mining activity has stimulated an invasion of garimpeiros (artisanal miners). In April, two inspecting coordinators of the agency were dismissed as a reprisal for the closure of garimpos in Indigenous lands located in the Middle Xingu area, in Pará state.

Also boosted by the rise in gold prices, illegal garimpos have been on the increase in the Indigenous Territories of  Raposa/Serra do Sol (Roraima state), Yanomami (Roraina and Amazonas), and Munduruku (Pará state), among others.

There are no garimpos in TI Balaio, but the area is on the route followed by garimpeiros on the way to illegal gold mines in the Yanomami TI and in Venezuela. They count on the tacit cooperation of the Army checkpoint on the road, which turns a blind eye to them.

When we passed through, the soldiers appeared to be concerned only with identifying possible foreign nationals. After answering a few questions to confirm our nationality, we were not even required to show our ID. In the Ya-Mirim community, at least three garimpeiros were waiting for transportation.

Area is hard to reach

The poor condition of the road leading to the area causes enormous difficulties for the Indigenous people of TI Balaio and also the Yanomamis of the Maturacá community, with around 2,100 inhabitants. To reach their homes, they still need to travel for about a day on the Ya-Mirim river, that crosses the community, on canoes powered by the cheapest outboard engine.

The indigenous people go to São Gabriel da Cachoeira frequently to receive their Bolsa Família and other benefits. Quite often they spend all the benefit money on transport.

Due to the high cost, several families often share the rental of the Toyota. The open back part of the pickup is shared by many people, including children and seniors. Mechanical problems and breakdowns in the mud are the rule rather than the exception, and travellers often have to spend the night on the road until they can be rescued by another Toyota driver.

“It’s a sad business. People here face great hardships,” says Tiago Fernandes Sampaio, 49, president of the TI Balaio association and a member of the PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party). “It used to be that the trip took two hours. Not now, though. Sometimes you leave before dawn and arrive at dawn of the next day. The Toyota auto parts break down midway. If you are taking people who are gravely ill to get help, they sometimes die on the road.”

Besides the locals and garimpeiros, this route is also followed by tourists who want to climb Pico da Neblina, the highest peak of Brazil, accessible via Maturacá. The mountain is located within the Pico da Neblina National Park and also within the Yanomami territory. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the trip to São Gabriel was made by air from Manaus. There used to be three commercial flights a week, but they have been suspended due to the pandemic.

Authorized by Funai (the governmental agency for Indigenous peoples) and ICMBio (administrative arm of the Ministry of the Environment), the visitation project was seen as a source of income for the Yanomami of Maturacá and was intended to start in March, but the Covid-19 pandemic has postponed it indefinitely.

The experience of Yanomamis receiving visitors has been closely monitored in the TI Balaio. “The most feasible option for us right now would be tourism,” says chief Veloso, of the Desana people, comparing it to mining. “We have many beautiful spots, the community, waterfalls, small rivers which allow for bathing. All that is needed is some structure and organization.”

“Adding ecotourism to the ethnic experience of spending time with indigenous peoples, who would be visitors’ hosts, would add a special flavour to this destination,” says tourism entrepreneur Kleber Bechara, former head of the Seis Lagos Rebio (Biological Reserve).

He believes there is potential for expedition tourism. “This is a remote area, difficult to access. With the proper infrastructure it could become an added attraction for a specific niche of the public that is interested in having experiences of this kind, with safety.”

The Army’s Centre for Social Communications reported by e-mail they are carrying out repairs and maintenance by means of two operations, at a cost of R$19,2 million, to ensure the road is usable up to TI Balaio. The work is forecast to be completed by November this year.

Regarding the policy of allowing garimpeiros to pass through the checkpoint, the answer was “there is no kind of checkpoint maintained by the Brazilian Army on the aforementioned BR (highway).”

With or without niobium extraction, mining has been one of the issues most discussed among the indigenous peoples since the 1970s, at least, when the region was invaded by garimpeiros and mining concerns.

To expel them, the indigenous people organized themselves in Foirn (Federation of Indigenous Organizations of the Rio Negro), that was created in 1987 and lobbied for the demarcation of indigenous lands. Today the organization brings together 90 associations representing 700 communities and around 50 thousand people divided between 23 indigenous peoples.

“They invaded our territory, and we had no security. Indigenous people and garimpeiros were slaughtered,” says the head of Foirn, Adão Henrique, of the Baré people. “Thanks to the strength of the movement and to Funai, they retreated.”

Contrary to Bolsonaro’s suggestion, the federal government has never got in touch with Foirn to discuss mining, says Henrique. According to him, the organization is open to discussing the question.

“We want development, but with participative discussion. It has to be done step by step, following legislation, both international and Brazilian,” he says. “Our movement will continue to strongly oppose the proposals of the present government. We don’t want the Rio Negro indigenous peoples be harmed or deluded with projects destined to fail.”

Politically distant from Foirn, the mayor of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Clóvis Saldanha (PT), known as Tarubão, of the Tariano people, was elected on the promise of regulating Indigenous garimpos – he has worked on garimpos himself. When he became mayor, in 2018, Saldanha created the Responsible Smallhold Mining Department, with the aim of promoting mining without the involvement of large companies.

One of the department’s advisors is Cisneia Menezes Basilio, of the Desana people. She graduated from Ufam (Federal University of Amazonas) and is the first indigenous geologist in the country.

Basilio says there is great geological diversity in this region, but it has been little studied so far. She mentions deposits of tantalite (used in the tech industry) and gold, as well quartz and gemstones such as amethyst, quartz, and aquamarine beryl. Like other specialists, she doesn’t believe it is feasible to mine niobium in Seis Lagos.

In the mayor’s office, the geologist says the aim is to stimulate the incipient production of biojewellery, training craftspeople and taking information about mineral exploration and legislation to the communities.

“When the communities heard about the existence of the department and that it had a geologist, they started coming to us with their samples to try and identify them, wanting to know about prices and imagining that those little quartz, amethyst or tantalum stones would be able to change their lives,” she said in an interview in her office, where she keeps several of these samples.

“What the people of São Gabriel need isn’t liberation or mining, but information. What is being discussed in Congress are large-scale mining operations, and our people at the grassroots often imagine this is something that will give them work and will benefit them directly. We know that is not true,” she says.

“We don’t lie to them, on the contrary. Our department’s role is to inform the people of their rights enshrined in the 1988 Constitution and research possible activities in which indigenous people can be the main actors and can enjoy the fruits of their natural resources.”

This reporting is part of The Amazon under Bolsonaro, a collaboration between Folha De S. Paulo and Climate Home News.



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