Niobium is a soft gray metal and a chemical element represented by the symbol Nb with the atomic number 41. The free metal does not occur in nature, but it can be found in certain minerals such as columbite and pyrochlore. The largest deposits of niobium containing minerals are found in Brazil and Canada and these two countries continue to produce the majority of the element for the world. Niobium is chemically similar to the element tantalum, which meant that its discovery was the subject of much debate.
Who discovered niobium?
In 1801 the English chemist Charles Hatchett was the first to discover niobium in a columbite sample sent from the United States. He was the person to name this mineral, after Columbia, and he also named the new element columbium. However, it is now believed that Hatchett’s discovery was probably niobium mixed with tantalum. This led to some confusion and in 1809 another English chemist William Hyde Wollaston declared that tantalum and columbium were actually the same thing.
This was the accepted conclusion until 1864 when German chemist Heinrich Rose reinstated the debate by arguing there were two elements in the sample. He named one niobium and pelopium. This was confirmed in 1864 by Christian Wilhelm Blomstrand and Henri Etienne Sainte-Claire Deville as well as a year later by Louis J. Troost. Swiss chemist Jean Charles Galissard de Marignac was the first to separate the metals and produce pure niobium in 1864 and he was able to find a way to do this on a large scale 2 years later.
Did you know?
The two names of the element, columbium and niobium, were used after its discovery until the niobium name was made official in 1949.