identified the element columbium
within a mineral discovered in Connecticut, US.
Picture of a Hellenistic sculpture representing Niobe
by Giorgio Sommer
Niobium was identified by English chemist Charles Hatchett in 1801. He found a new element in a mineral sample that had been sent to England from Connecticut, United States in 1734 by John Winthrop F.R.S. (grandson of John Winthrop the Younger) and named the mineral columbite and the new element columbium after Columbia, the poetical name for the United States. The columbium discovered by Hatchett was probably a mixture of the new element with tantalum.
Subsequently, there was considerable confusion over the difference between columbium (niobium) and the closely related tantalum. In 1809, English chemist William Hyde Wollaston compared the oxides derived from both columbium—columbite, with a density 5.918 g/cm3, and tantalum—tantalite, with a density over 8 g/cm3, and concluded that the two oxides, despite the significant difference in density, were identical; thus he kept the name tantalum. This conclusion was disputed in 1846 by German chemist Heinrich Rose, who argued that there were two different elements in the tantalite sample, and named them after children of Tantalus: niobium (from Niobe) and pelopium (from Pelops). This confusion arose from the minimal observed differences between tantalum and niobium. The claimed new elements pelopium, ilmenium, and dianium were in fact identical to niobium or mixtures of niobium and tantalum.
The differences between tantalum and niobium were unequivocally demonstrated in 1864 by Christian Wilhelm Blomstrand and Henri Etienne Sainte-Claire Deville, as well as Louis J. Troost, who determined the formulas of some of the compounds in 1865 and finally by Swiss chemist Jean Charles Galissard de Marignac in 1866, who all proved that there were only two elements. Articles on ilmenium continued to appear until 1871.
De Marignac was the first to prepare the metal in 1864, when he reduced niobium chloride by heating it in an atmosphere of hydrogen. Although de Marignac was able to produce tantalum-free niobium on a larger scale by 1866, it was not until the early 20th century that niobium was used in incandescent lamp filaments, the first commercial application. This use quickly became obsolete through the replacement of niobium with tungsten, which has a higher melting point. That niobium improves the strength of steel was first discovered in the 1920s, and this application remains its predominant use. In 1961, the American physicist
Eugene Kunzler and coworkers at Bell Labs discovered that niobium-tin continues to exhibit superconductivity in the presence of strong electric currents and magnetic fields, making it the first material to support the high currents and fields necessary for useful high-power magnets and electrical power machinery. This discovery enabled – two decades later – the production of long multi-strand cables wound into coils to create large, powerful electromagnets for rotating machinery, particle accelerators, and particle detectors.
Naming the element
Columbium (symbol "Cb") was the name originally bestowed by Hatchett upon his discovery of the metal in 1801. The name reflected that the type specimen of the ore came from America (Columbia). This name remained in use in American journals—the last paper published by American Chemical Society with columbium in its title dates from 1953—while niobium was used in Europe. To end this confusion, the name niobium was chosen for element 41 at the 15th Conference of the Union of Chemistry in Amsterdam in 1949. A year later this name was officially adopted by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) after 100 years of controversy, despite the chronological precedence of the name columbium. This was a compromise of sorts; the IUPAC accepted tungsten instead of wolfram in deference to North American usage; and niobium instead of columbium in deference to European usage. While many US chemical societies and government organizations typically use the official IUPAC name, some metallurgists and metal societies still use the original American name, "columbium".