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A New Ore Containing Invaluable Rare Metal Has Been Found In China

The niobobaotite ore is rich in niobium, a highly sought-after metal with superconductive properties.


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

A satellite image of China's Bayan Obo Mining District taken in 2006.

A satellite image of China's Bayan Obo Mining District taken in 2006.

Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Geologists in China have unearthed a new type of ore that’s rich in niobium, a much-prized metal with superconductive properties that is used in everything from steel production to jet engines and particle accelerators. 

Dubbed niobobaotite, the ore was recently discovered within the Bayan Obo Mining District of Inner Mongolia in China, according to an announcement from the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC). They explained that the ore is rich in barium, titanium, iron, chlorine, and – most excitingly – niobium.


Niobium is used as an additive in alloys, such as steel, to improve their strength. Owing to its resistance to corrosion and heat, metals containing niobium are commonly used in things like rockets, oil pipelines, and jet engines. In the US, practically all fighter jet engines are made of niobium alloys.

It’s also coveted for its superconductive properties, which allow it to conduct electricity with no resistance or energy loss when it's cooled to an extremely low temperature. This quality makes it a much-needed material for the magnets used in high-tech equipment like particle accelerators and MRI scanners.

Located just 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of the China-Mongolia border, the Bayan Obo Mining District is home to the largest known deposits of rare-earth elements in the world and is a major factor in China’s dominance in the global market for rare metals.

Given its desirable properties, the discovery of new niobium deposits could have some big geopolitical implications.


Prior to this news, it was estimated that Brazil had approximately 98 percent of the known niobium reserves in the world and accounts for about 85 percent of the world’s supply.

The Brazilian reserves became somewhat of an obsession for former president Jair Bolsonaro who often used niobium to justify starting mining operations in protected parts of the country. He even owned a necklace made out of black niobium, which he brandished in front of foreign journalists before remarking “the Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours.” 

“The world talks a lot about Silicon Valley, right? I dream, who knows, that one day, we’ll also have a Niobium Valley,” Bolsonaro said in a video back in 2016 before his bumpy presidency.

China currently produces around half of the world’s crude steel, but it currently relies heavily on imported niobium from places like Brazil. This new discovery, however, might just change that. 


“{The] discovery is significant for China since most of the niobium China uses in the steel industry is imported," Antonio H. Castro Neto, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the National University of Singapore, told the South China Morning Post.

“Depending on the volume and quality of this niobium, it could make China self-sufficient,” he added.


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