By Mark A. Smith

April 22, 2020

By Mark A. Smith, P.E., Esq.
CEO and Executive Chairman, NioCorp Developments Ltd.

As the United States and other nations work to repair crumbling infrastructure systems, I expect to see more high-performance steels (HPS) used in structures like bridges.  Why?  Because HPS steels deliver greater strength, corrosion resistance, weldability, and longer useful lifespans than traditional steel grades.  In particular, HPS steels containing a small amount of ferroniobium – which NioCorp plans to produce in southeast Nebraska at our Elk Creek Superalloy Materials Project once we are funded and in operation – are among the strongest and most durable steels on the market today.

I see four key factors that will drive even higher utilization of HPS steel in bridges and other transportation infrastructure projects in the years to come:  demand for job creation, increased public safety margins, environmental benefits and cost savings to taxpayers.


1.  Job Creation


As governments around the world look to re-start their economies following the COVID pandemic, creating and sustaining new jobs is a high priority.  Bringing the U.S. economy back to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rates we enjoyed prior to COVID-19 is an intense and bipartisan focus in Washington, D.C. now.  I believe that large public-works infrastructure programs, such as those being discussed at the highest levels of the U.S. government, would both boost job creation and help the country meet other key public policy goals.

A 2017 analysis by the Boston Consulting Group and CG/LA Infrastructure concluded that a $1 trillion investment in an infrastructure initiative in the U.S. could create nearly 3 million new jobs.[1]

Large-scale infrastructure re-building programs would certainly increase the demand for building materials like concrete and high-performance steels.


2.  Increased Public Safety


Bridges and other structures built with niobium-containing HPS steels are stronger, more durable and more resistant to corrosion and fatigue.  In particular, niobium’s ability to produce steel with a more homogeneous grain size and microstructure leads to improved strength, better fracture toughness, increased energy absorption, and improved cyclic fatigue performance.  These and other qualities allow bridges to better withstand decades of high use, as well as external stresses from things like earthquakes.  As such, HPS steels deliver safer and more durable bridges that increase the safety margin for drivers and their families.


3.  Environmental Benefits


The use of niobium-containing HPS and weathering steels also deliver substantial benefits to the environment.  For one, the increased strength of these steels allows for less materials of construction to be used.

One example of this is the Millau Viaduct bridge in southern France, which is the world’s tallest bridge (1,125 feet).  Niobium was used at the rate of 0.025% per tonne of steel to reduce the overall weight of the bridge by some 60 percent.  That meant less construction materials needed to be manufactured and transported to the job site, reducing both fuel consumption and associated air emissions.

As niobium producer CBMM notes, niobium-containing weathering steels also eliminate the need for steel painting, which reduces exposure to contaminated blast debris or volatile organic compounds (VOC) from paints and can also generate an initial savings in bridge construction costs of 10%.[2]

4.  Taxpayer Savings


As the National Steel Bridge Alliance[3] has noted, use of HPS steels in bridges offer substantial initial and life-cycle cost savings.  The use of niobium-containing HPS and weathering steels reduces the size and weight of structural elements needed in bridges, which helps to reduce costs associated with transportation, fabrication and construction.

This is because they enable the following innovations:

  • Longer span lengths and fewer piers
  • Lower foundation and superstructure costs
  • Wider beam spacing and fewer beams
  • Increased vertical clearance without expensive roadway approach work
  • Fewer maintenance requirements and longer service life

States and development authorities have been increasingly integrating HPS steels in bridges and other infrastructure projects including a steel grade known as HPS 70W, which often utilizes niobium as a micro-alloying agent.  The first highway bridge in the U.S. using HPS 70W steel was built in Nebraska, and the Nebraska Department of Transportation is recognized as a leader in innovative bridge construction and design.

A study by HDR Engineering, Inc. and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln examined the cost differences between bridge designs using HPS 70W steel versus conventional steel grades.[4]  The study found that incorporating HPS steel can reduce overall bridge fabrication costs even with the higher cost of HPS steel.  Additional cost savings with HPS steel can also be realized in lower costs associated with shipping and erection, foundations and reduced approach fill heights, the study found.

According to the American Iron and Steel Institute, high-performance steels can save up to 18 percent of a bridge project’s cost. [5]

When comparing the overall life-cycle costs of a bridge, savings of more than 30 percent can be achieved in bridges constructed with niobium-containing HPS steels, according to Brazil-based CBMM, the world’s #1 producer of niobium.[6]

In summary, given the potential of infrastructure legislation to help create jobs, and the potential of greater use of niobium-containing HPS steel in bridges to increase safety, reduce environmental impacts, and save taxpayer dollars, I see a U.S. infrastructure initiative as a winning strategy for government, industry, and the public.

At NioCorp, we look forward to seeing more bridges built using high-performance steel with niobium all around the world!

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[1] “Working Paper: Maximizing the Job Creation Impact of $1 Trillion in Infrastructure Investment,”  Boston Consulting Group and CG/LA Infrastructure, March 2017,$1-Trillion-in-Infrastructure-Investment.pdf[2] Source:  CBMM White Paper entitled “Steel Producers Respond to Demand for High Performance Bridge Steels with Niobium,” 2020.

[3]  National Steel Bridge Alliance White Paper entitled “Advances in High Performance Steels for Highway Bridges,” 2006.

[4] High Performance Steel Cost Comparison Study, U.S. DOT / University of Nebraska-Lincoln & HDR Engineering, 2007.

[5] Source: American Iron & Steel Institute website, 2020.

[6] Ibid at 1.