Why WA1 Resources’ Rare Niobium Discovery Could Help Elon’s Mission to Mars

Niobium isn’t discussed much around dinner tables. If asked, few people would be able to tell you where this metal comes from or what it’s used for. I’ll come back to these questions but for now, here’s a chart showing the share price performance of ASX-listed, mineral exploration company WA1 Resources:

Source: WA1 Resources shares price at close on 12 January 2023 – Google Finance.

WA1 Resources‘ remarkable success is due to the West Arunta Project located in Western Australia near the border with the Northern Territory.

Source: WA1 Resources Website

On 18 August 2022, the Company announced they had completed a maiden drill programme at West Arunta, with 4 holes at Pachpadra targeting the P1 and P2 anomalies, and 3 holes completed at the Luni anomaly.

Source: WA1 Resources 18 August 2022 ASX release

On 26 October 2022, the Company put out a news release titled: “WEST ARUNTA PROJECTDISCOVERY OF NIOBIUM-REE MINERALISED CARBONATITE SYSTEM“. The assay results for 1 hole had been released and showed:

  • 54m at 0.62% Nb2O5, 0.18% TREO and 3.85% P2O5

Note: Nb2O5 = Niobium Oxide, TREO = Total Rare Earth Oxides, P2O5 = Phosphorus Pentoxide. For simplification, focus on the Niobium Oxide, the other minerals are a distraction.

The announcement went onto say that ‘Carbonatite mineral systems are important sources of niobium and REE and host all three of the world’s operating niobium mines and also Lynas Rare Earths Limited’s Mt Weld deposit’.

If you were paying attention, you might have noticed from the last statement that there aren’t too many operating niobium mines. Just three! Supply constraint like this interest me.

The rest of the maiden drill holes were encouraging and it seemed that WA1 Resources could be onto something. New drilling was planned.

On 6 February 2023, things started to get exciting. WA1 Resources announced the discovery of a near surface enrichment blanket at Luni. Assays showed:

  • 7m at 3.5% Nb2O5 from 40m.
  • 6m at 2.3% Nb2O5 from 31m.
  • 3m at 3.1% Nb2O5 from 153m.

These were impressive grades. But then, on 1 May 2023, the Company announced even better grades at Luni of:

  • 13m at 5.0% Nb2O5 from 35m.
  • 10m at 4.0% Nb2O5 from 42m.
  • 12m at 3.2% Nb2O5 from 48m.

It was in May 2023 that the market started to get an understanding of what WA1 Resources had found and the stock swiftly trebled from A$2.00 to A$6.00.

To fully understand why, let’s take a look at the World’s three operating niobium mines:

  • Araxa Mine in Brazil, owned by CBMM (Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração).
  • Boa Vista Mine in Brazil, owned by CMOC Group Limited (formerly called China Molybdenum).
  • Niobec Mine in Quebec, Canada, owned by Magris Resources.

The following chart shows the percentage of global supply of each niobium mine and the mine grade. The shallow assays returned from Luni in February and May last year (2023) compare well, even to the 2.5% Nb2O5 grade of CBMM’s Araxa mine.

Source: WA1 Resources Presentation 20 November 2023

There’s some way to go with drilling and metallurgical testing, but so far, it appears that WA1 Resources have stumbled across a rare type of deposit.

But what’s niobium used for?

According to the 2022 Niobium report produced by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), “Niobium was consumed mostly in the form of ferroniobium by the steel industry and as niobium alloys and metal by the aerospace industry. Major end-use distribution of domestic niobium consumption was estimated as follows: steels, about 75%, and superalloys, about 25%.

Niobium is overwhelmingly used as an alloying element in steel as it greatly increases its strength, while also improving mechanical and welding properties. It also improves the corrosion resistance. As a result, niobium-alloyed steel is used extensively in heavy construction projects like bridges, ships, rails, steam turbines, drilling equipment etc.

But let’s go back to USGS’s statement that niobium is used as ‘niobium alloys and metal in the aerospace industry‘.

To understand why, let’s look at some rocket science:

In a rocket engine, fuel and oxidiser are mixed and exploded in a combustion chamber. The hot exhaust is then accelerated as it passes through the throat of a nozzle. The high-pressure exhaust flow then needs to be expanded and the pressure lowered as it reaches the ambient air pressure outside the rocket. The aim of the game is to keep the exhaust flow in exactly the opposite direction as the rocket is going to travel to generate maximum thrust and lift the rocket off the ground. Remember, according to Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion, for every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.

This is where one of the many challenges of rocketry comes in. If the exhaust plume isn’t expanded enough, then the plume will spill over the nozzle on further expansion and energy will be lost as some of the plume is directed at the wrong angle. Similarly the rocket will be inefficient if the exhaust plume has been expanded too much and the exhaust plume pressure is below the atmospheric pressure. The ideal situation is when the exhaust pressure matches the ambient air pressure when it leaves the nozzle. The direction of flow will be precisely in the opposite direction of travel to the rocket and maximum thrust will be generated.

However, there’s another challenge! As the rocket takes off and rises in the atmosphere the air pressure starts to decrease. What was a perfectly optimised exhaust plume at sea level will start to ‘under expand’ as the rocket rises. If you look out for it, you can usually see the plume of an exhaust widen as a rocket climbs towards space.

In space, of course, there is almost no atmosphere at all. It’s for this reason that many rocket designs use two stage rockets. If you look at SpaceX’s Falcon 9 design, they use 9 Merlin engines in the First Stage to get the rocket past the stratosphere and then use a single Merlin vacuum engine (see MVAC ENGINE label below) in the Second Stage, to cope with the environment of space.

This image below shows the difference in scale of the Sea Level Merlin 1-D engine versus the Second Stage Vacuum Merlin 1-D, despite both having the same throat diameter. The Vacuum engine has a lot more work to do expanding the exhaust plume and therefore requires a much larger nozzle.

Source: Everyday Astronaut

In 1965, an alloy called C-103 was invented by ATI Specialty Alloys. The alloy consists of 90% niobium, 9% hafnium and a few bits of titanium, zirconium and tungsten and tantalum. It was found that the alloy maintains its structural integrity and mechanical properties at extremely high temperatures and so was quickly put to use in aerospace applications in sustained high-temperature environments, particularly in propulsion systems where regenerative cooling is not available. 1961 to 1972 was the era of the US’s Apollo Space Program and C-103 became the material of choice to make the large expansion nozzles used on the Command And Service Module (CSM). These modules helped the Lunar Module land on the Moon and then return to Earth.

Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) in lunar orbit. Apollo 15 Mission.

Interestingly, in more recent times (2009), niobium alloys were still being used for vacuum engine nozzles by SpaceX. Another reason for using niobium alloys is that it’s amenable to TIG (Tungsten Inert Gas) welding. In the image below you can see the welding joins on the niobium nozzle.

Source: SpaceX Merlin Vacuum Engine Nozzle

It can be difficult to find much information on niche topics like space rocket engine nozzles but according to an article on the PayLoadSpace website dated 2023 “‘SpaceX’s upper-stage Merlin engine nozzle extension and Dragon capsule reaction control engines use traditional Niobium C103”. Additionally, former SpaceX rocket engineer Tom Mueller appeared to confirm niobium’s use, following a Falcon 9 launch for the Ovzon-3 mission on 3 January 2024. The image below shows the Merlin Vacuum exhaust nozzle for this mission, just prior to second stage separation.

Moments later the First Stage rocket is disengaged and the Second Stage engine ignites. If you look closely you can see the First Stage rocket dropping towards Earth. The Earth’s horizon is seen in the far left of the image during sunset. The sunset also allows us to see the extreme temperatures that the niobium alloy needs to endure.

Here’s Tom Mueller’s 4th January 2024 comment on X, confirming the use of niobium for the Falcon 9 Second Stage nozzle.

If you study the launch and landing maps for Falcon 9 missions you’ll notice the trajectory of the First Stage rocket that is now guided back to Earth and landed on an Autonomous Spaceport. This magnificent feat of engineering and programming allows SpaceX to reuse the rockets and reduce launch costs. You might also wonder what happens to the Second Stage rocket?

Source: SpaceX

Unfortunately, this equipment isn’t so lucky, since there are some significant challenges to landing the Second Stage.

The First Stage reaches speeds of up to 2.3km per second. But the Second Stage travels much faster at up to 7.8km per second. The heat generated on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere increases by the speed of travel CUBED! Based on this, if the Second Stage travels 4 times faster than the First Stage, then the heat generated on re-entry would increase by 64 times!

Additionally, remember that the Second Stage Merlin Vacuum engine is optimised for use in the near absence of atmosphere. It’s not optimised to operate within the Earth’s atmosphere and would have stability issues while trying to land.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX may solve this challenge, but for now, the Second Stage rocket engine is dropped out of orbit and mostly burns up on re-entry.

The Niobium market is small. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that only 79,000 tonnes of niobium was mined in 2022. But its future seems bright. Niobium has an enviable position in the High Strength Low Alloy (HSLA) steel market. But additionally the metal appears to be essential for the harsh environment of space. The space race seems to be speeding up not slowing down. Niobium appears to be a ‘strategic’ metal in every sense of the word.


  1. Great article. I found it very interesting.

  2. thx great stuff

  3. Thanks for sharing your broad knowledge and information. Looking for another Niobium related article ^^

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