Building a sustainable value chain for recycling a strategically important metal.
This project developed a business case and roadmap for recycling niobium. This metallic element is used in many applications and manufactured products. It also has an increasingly important role in developing new green technologies. With the UK and Europe wholly reliant on niobium imports, the outputs from Circular Niobium will lay the ground for technology developers and manufacturers to mitigate against supply risks and develop more sustainable products.
Circular Niobium has gained a comprehensive understanding of the niobium material flows into and around Europe. It has also developed a cost model that supports the opportunity for recycling the material from niobium based batteries. We collaborated with the recycling value chain to develop a business model for recycling niobium from other niobium rich products, such as superconducting wires and superalloys.
What is niobium?
Niobium is a transition metal and is used in many types of materials, in varying amounts. One of its primary uses is as an alloying element in steel products, where the addition of a very small amount (~0.1%), produces a large improvement in performance, enabling stronger and safer steel structures. High-content niobium products such as superconductors can contain over 50% niobium, and niobium-titanium wires used in medical imaging can contain 66% niobium. Niobium has recently been used in new applications, including energy storage. Niobium-containing materials are proving to have a significant impact on the performance of batteries, greatly enhancing their storage and power capacity. However, recycling rates of niobium are currently very low, just 0.3% is recycled back into a niobium product globally. The increasing amount of materials and applications with a higher niobium content offer the potential to develop a sustainable recycling value chain.
An expert team in the UK, led by Beta, with battery materials developer Echion Technologies and the British Geological Survey, started the 12-month feasibility study in April 2022. The team were successful in receiving funding for Circular Niobium from a competition managed by Innovate UK in conjunction with the UKRI Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Centre for Technology Metals (Met4Tech). Upon completion of the feasibility study, the project advanced to the next stage by developing a chemical recycling process and collaborating with the value chain to promote the use and recycling of niobium based products.
The project team has created a business model for recycling niobium and a roadmap for building a secondary niobium market. This output is a significant contribution to the broader materials roadmap for technology metals being developed by Met4Tech. Beta Technology has now established a virtual Knowledge and Innovation Centre, to support the development of the circular economy for niobium in the UK and Europe.
Circular Niobium Project Lead and Managing Director of Beta Technology Richard Wrigley said:
“The project partners have worked hard to understand issues of material flows where data is incomplete and to develop a cost model for the recycling of niobium rich batteries. The global network that the project partners have been able to access has enabled a solid base to be established for developing the business case for a circular economy for niobium”.