Raw & Manufactured Materials: 2010 Overview

January 1, 2010
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Though the extended global recession has certainly taken its toll, demand for some materials is steady or on the rise.



Abrasives

Two companies at three plants in the U.S. and Canada produced fused aluminum oxide in 2008. Production of regular fused aluminum oxide has held steady at 10,000 t since 2005, while production of high-purity fused aluminum oxide has held at 5000 t since at least 2004. The estimated value of the production of regular-grade fused aluminum oxide in 2008 was $1.92 million, while the production of high-purity fused aluminum oxide was estimated to have a value of more than $4.79 million.

Exports of fused aluminum oxide increased dramatically in 2008-by 35.2% to 24,600 t. Imports for consumption increased by 21.9% to 289,000 t. Import sources for crude fused aluminum oxide, for the 2004-2007 period, included: China, 80%; Canada, 13%; Venezuela, 5%; Germany, 1%; and other, 1%. For fused aluminum oxide grain in the same time period, import sources included: Brazil, 23%; Germany, 23%; Austria, 15%; Italy, 9%; and other, 30%.

Silicon carbide was again produced by two companies at two plants in the U.S. in 2008, with production of crude silicon carbide remaining at 35,000 t (the same level since at least 2004) and having an estimated value of about $26.4 million. Exports decreased by 17.1% to 16,000 t, while imports decreased by the same rate to 136,000 t. Crude silicon carbide’s import sources for the 2004-2007 period included: China, 74%; Venezuela, 8%; Romania, 6%; the Netherlands, 6%; and other, 6%. In the same time period, silicon carbide grain was imported from: China, 36%; Brazil, 24%; Russia, 10%; Vietnam, 7%; and other, 23%.

Table 1.

Bauxite and Alumina

As in previous years, more than 90% of the bauxite consumed in the U.S. in 2008 was converted to alumina. Apparent consumption of bauxite and alumina remained relatively unchanged at 3.6 Mt.

Exports of bauxite decreased by 43% to 17,000 t, while imports of bauxite for consumption increased slightly (3.6%) to 11.6 Mt. Imports of bauxite during 2004-2007 came from: Jamaica, 31%; Guinea, 22%; Brazil, 19%; Guyana, 12%; and other, 16%.

Annual alumina capacity was 5.75 Mt. Exports of alumina climbed 12.1% to 1.3 Mt, while imports increased by 6.6% to 2.6 Mt. Import sources for alumina (2004-2007) included: Australia, 45%; Suriname, 23%; Jamaica, 12%; Brazil, 7%; and other, 13%.

World production of alumina increased slightly compared with that of 2007. Based on production data from the International Aluminium Institute, world alumina production during the first two quarters of 2008 increased by 4%, compared with the same period in 2007. Expansions of bauxite mines in Australia, Brazil, China and India accounted for most of the slight increase in worldwide production of bauxite (see Table 1). Worldwide bauxite resources are estimated to be 55-75 billion tons, located in Africa (33%), Oceania (24%), South America and the Caribbean (22%), Asia (15%), and elsewhere (6%).

The Freedonia Group reports that alumina “will remain the workhorse of the industry” through 2012 due to its performance characteristics and attractive cost. Alumina constituted 39% of the total demand for advanced ceramics materials in 2007.1

A new semi-processed borate material developed by Rio Tinto Minerals.

Boron

Boron materials, primarily as sodium borates, were produced domestically by two companies in southern California in 2008. (Data for boron production and consumption in the U.S. were withheld to avoid disclosure of individual company proprietary data.)

Boron minerals and chemicals were principally consumed in the North Central and Eastern U.S. The estimated distribution pattern for boron compounds consumed in the U.S. in 2008 was glass and ceramics, 74%; soaps, detergents and bleaches, 6%; agriculture, 3%; enamels and glazes, 3%; and other, 14%.

Imports for consumption (by gross weight) of borax remained unchanged in 2008 at 1000 t. Other imports included boric acid, 3.0% decrease to 65,000 t; colemanite, 3.8% increase to 27,000 t; and ulexite, 2.2% decrease to 90,000 t. Exports by gross weight included boric acid, with a 4.8% increase to 260,000 t, and refined sodium borates, with a 5.4% increase to 470,000 t.

The growth in fiberglass and borosilicate production has driven a global demand for boron. A rapid increase in the manufacture of reinforcement-grade fiberglass in Asia, with a subsequent increase in demand for borates, offset the development of boron-free reinforcement-grade fiberglass in Europe and the U.S.

Table 2.

Clays

In 2008, clay and shale production was reported in 41 states. About 190 companies operated approximately 830 clay pits or quarries, and the leading 20 firms supplied about 50% of the tonnage and 80% of the value for all types of clay sold or used in the U.S. Total estimated U.S. production decreased by 9.8% to 33 Mt (see Table 2).

Sales or use was estimated to be 33.2 million tons, valued at $1.73 billion, in 2008. Major uses for specific clays were estimated to be as follows:
  • ball clay-38% floor and wall tile, 24% sanitaryware and 38% other uses
  • bentonite-26% absorbents, 23% drilling mud, 17% foundry sandbond, 14% iron ore pelletizing and 20% other uses
  • common clay-57% brick, 19% lightweight aggregate, 14% cement and 10% other uses
  • fireclay-58% heavy clay products, 42% refractory products and other uses
  • fuller’s earth-66% absorbent uses and 34% other uses
  • kaolin-62% paper and 38% other uses
Imports for consumption of clays plummeted 51.5% to 111,000 t in 2008, while exports faired better, with only a 7.9% decrease (to 5.2 Mt). Apparent consumption in the U.S. declined by 10.5% to 28.1 Mt.

Slowing U.S. construction markets resulted in a decline in the production of ball clay, common clay and fireclay. Kaolin production declined because of competition from Brazil, a lower demand in world paper markets and lower U.S. construction activity.

Bentonite production increased slightly, largely on the strength of the market for drilling mud, while fuller’s earth markets remained strong. According to Roskill Information Services, world demand for bentonite and fuller’s earth is forecast to rise by an average of 2.2% per year to 22.4 Mt in 2012. The highest rates of growth will be found in Asia, notably China, and in South America, where demand will be driven by the requirements of the iron ore pelletizing and foundry sands markets.2

From left: ball clay, talc, E.P.K., bentonite, feldspar and flint.

Feldspar

U.S. feldspar production in 2008 had an estimated value of about $36 million. The three leading producers accounted for about 75% of the production, with five other companies supplying the remainder. In descending order of estimated tonnage, producing states included North Carolina, California, Oklahoma, Georgia, Idaho and South Dakota. Feldspar processors reported co-product recovery of mica and silica sand.

Marketable production of feldspar in 2008 dropped by 17.8% to 600,000 t, while apparent consumption declined by 18.4% to 591,000 t. Exports increased by 10% to 11,000 t, and imports were cut by half, to 2000 t. The leading sources of imports in 2008, in descending order of volume, were Italy, Mexico, China, Brazil and Spain.

The estimated 2008 end-use distribution of domestic feldspar was glass, 65%; and pottery and other uses, 35%. Reduced construction activity resulted in reduced feldspar usage in ceramic tile, glass fiber insulation and plumbing fixtures.

Graphite

Although natural graphite was not produced in the U.S. in 2008, approximately 100 U.S. firms, primarily in the Northeastern and Great Lakes regions, used it for a wide variety of applications. The major uses of natural graphite in 2008 were refractory applications, 28%; steelmaking and foundry operations, 23%; brake linings, 12%; batteries and lubricants, 4%; and other applications, 33%.

Apparent consumption in 2008 declined by 9.3% to 39,000 t. Exports were flat at 16,000 t, while imports for consumption declined by 6.8% to 55,000 t. Leading sources for flake graphite imports were China, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Madagascar (in descending order of tonnage). Graphite lump and chip were primarily imported from Sri Lanka, while the majority of amorphous graphite was imported from Mexico and China.

China produced the majority of the world’s graphite from deposits clustered in the Shandong and Heilongjian regions, and China’s graphite production is expected to continue growing as producers there collaborate with Western graphite producers. In the past few years, Canada has had a number of new graphite mines begin production, and this trend is expected to continue through the next few years.

Advances in thermal technology and acid-leaching techniques that enable the production of higher-purity graphite powders are likely to lead to the development of new applications for graphite in high-technology fields. Such innovative refining techniques have enabled the use of improved graphite in carbon-graphite composites, electronics, foils, friction materials, and special lubricant applications. Flexible graphite lines, such as graphoil (a thin graphite cloth), probably will be the fastest-growing market. Large-scale fuel cell applications are also being developed that could consume as much graphite as all other uses combined.

Magnesium Compounds

Seawater and natural brines accounted for about 43% of U.S. production of magnesium compounds in 2008. Magnesium oxide and other compounds were recovered from seawater by three companies in California, Delaware and Florida; from well brines by two companies in Michigan; and from lake brines by two companies in Utah. Magnesite was mined by one company in Nevada, while brucite was mined by one company in Texas and olivine was mined by two companies in North Carolina and Washington.

About 60% of the magnesium compounds consumed in the U.S. was used for refractories. The remaining 40% was used in agricultural, chemical, construction, environmental and industrial applications.

Production of magnesium compounds dipped slightly to 340,000 t in 2008, and apparent consumption increased by 4.6% to 704,000 t. Exports were flat at 26,000 t, while imports increased slightly to 390,000 t. Import sources (2004-2007) included: China, 78%; Canada, 6%; Austria, 5%; Australia, 3%; and other, 8%.

Resources from which magnesium compounds can be recovered range from large to virtually unlimited and are globally widespread. Identified world resources of magnesite total 12 billion tons (brucite, several million tons). Resources of dolomite, forsterite, magnesium-bearing evaporite minerals and magnesia-bearing brines are estimated to constitute a resource on the order of billions of tons.

Niobium

Significant U.S. niobium mine production has not been reported since 1959. Companies in the U.S. produced ferroniobium and niobium compounds, metal and other alloys from imported niobium minerals, oxides and ferroniobium. Appreciable amounts of niobium in the form of high-purity ferroniobium and nickel niobium are used in nickel-, cobalt-, and iron-based superalloys for applications such as jet engine components, rocket subassemblies, and  heat-resisting and combustion equipment.

Apparent consumption of niobium in 2008 increased slightly to 9910 t. In 2007, the estimated value of niobium consumption was $229 million and was expected to be about $370 million in 2008 (as measured by the value of imports). Exports dropped by 45.5% to 600 t, while imports for consumption rose by 3.8% to 10,500 t. Import sources for the 2004-2007 time period for niobium contained in niobium and tantalum ore and concentrate, ferroniobium, and niobium metal and oxide included: Brazil, 82%; Canada, 9%; Estonia, 2%; and other, 7%.

According to Roskill Information Services, growth in the global niobium market came to a halt in 2008, though market segments where niobium is well-established or has no substitute will continue to expand. Prices for ferroniobium began to climb sharply in 2007. Average import prices in Japan increased from about $9900/t (gross weight) in 2007 to over $22,000/t in 2008. Roskill expects that the higher level of prices will be maintained once the effects of the global downturn have eased. In real terms, niobium prices have been falling for years while demand was increasing and costs were incurred to boost capacity. Prices are likely to remain at the levels seen at the end of 2008 and will display relatively little volatility.3

Rare Earths and Yttrium

Based on final 2007 reported data, the estimated distribution of rare earths by end use was as follows:
  • glass polishing and ceramics, 37%
  • automotive catalytic converters, 30%
  • rare earth phosphors for computer monitors, lighting, radar, televisions and X-ray-intensifying film, 14%
  • chemicals and petroleum refining catalysts, 11%
  • pharmaceuticals and pharmaceutical equipment, 3%
  • permanent magnets, 2%
  • metallurgical applications and alloys, 1%
  • laser and scintillator crystals, 1%
  • other, 1%
Rare earth exports in 2008 dropped by 18.6%, while imports decreased by 6.6%. The estimated value of refined rare earths imported by the U.S. was more than $127 million in 2008. For the 2004-2007 time period, import sources for rare earth materials included: China, 87%; France, 5%; Japan, 4%; Russia, 2%; and other, 2%.

The Rare Earth Industry and Technology Association (REITA) was created in June 2009 “to facilitate and foster the creation of a global rare earth industry and technology base to meet the growing need for rare earth materials and products for green energy, defense, energy independence and homeland security applications.” According to Keith Delaney, REITA’s executive director, “it won’t be long before China will not be in a position to export rare earth materials.” One of the goals of the association is to develop and maintain stable supply chains.4

The approximate end-use distribution in 2007 for yttrium oxide (Y2O3) was: phosphors (all types), 89%; ceramics, 10%; and metallurgy, 1%. Estimated consumption in 2008 dropped 11% to 600 t. All yttrium metal and compounds used in the U.S. were imported, and 2008 imports declined by 11% to 600 t. The vast majority (95.7%) of 2004-2007 imports came from China. Other sources included Japan (3.7%) and France (0.6%).

Silica

Industrial sand and gravel, often called “silica,” “silica sand” and “quartz sand,” includes sands and gravels with high silicon dioxide (SiO2) content. Both production and apparent consumption of industrial sand and gravel remained virtually unchanged in 2008 at 30 Mt and 27.3 Mt, respectively.

Total production of industrial sand and gravel in 2008 was valued at about $832 million. Leading states (in order of tonnage produced) were Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, North Carolina, California and Michigan. The U.S. tonnage was used as:
  • glassmaking sand, 33%
  • hydraulic fracturing sand and well-packing and cementing sand, 21%
  • foundry sand, 14%
  • whole-grain fillers and building products, 8%
  • ground silica and whole-grain silica, 5%
  • gold course sand, 4%
  • other uses, 15%
Exports of industrial sand and gravel increased marginally (2.3%) to 3 Mt in 2008, while imports for consumption decreased dramatically (36.8%) to 323,000 t. Import sources (2004-2007) included: Mexico, 60%; Canada, 36%; and other, 4%.

Soda Ash

The total production of domestic soda ash (sodium carbonate) in 2008 was estimated to be about 11.2 Mt, worth around $1.4 billion. Apparent consumption remained virtually unchanged in 2008 at 6 Mt. Based on final 2007 reported data, the estimated 2008 distribution of soda ash by end use was:
  • glass, 49%
  • chemicals, 30%
  • soap and detergents, 8%
  • distributors, 5%
  • miscellaneous uses, 3%
  • flue gas desulfurization and water treatment, 2%
  • pulp and paper, 1%
Exports rose marginally to 5.2 Mt, while imports shot up 66.7% to 15,000 t. A major soda ash manufacturer in India purchased a U.S. chemical company (for $1.05 billion), and the purchase included a 75% interest in the company’s Wyoming soda ash operation. As a result of the acquisition, the U.S. soda ash industry became, for the first time, no longer a U.S. majority-owned industry. Foreign ownership now accounts for 60% of total domestic nameplate capacity (about 14.5 Mt).

A joint venture between a major U.S. soda ash producer and Saudi Arabia’s largest glass container manufacturer was formed in February 2008. A synthetic soda ash plant with an annual production capacity of 900,000 t was to be built in Saudi Arabia, with the first phase of construction to be completed by 2010. Salt, limestone and energy would be supplied from local sources.

Table 3.

Talc and Pyrophyllite

Domestic talc production in 2008 was estimated to be 645,000 t (a decrease of 16.1% vs. 2007) valued at $21 million. Nine talc-producing mines were located in five states in 2008. Montana was the leading producer, followed by Texas, Vermont, New York and California. Talc produced in the U.S. was used for:
  • ceramics, 31%
  • paper, 21%
  • paint, 19%
  • roofing, 8%
  • plastics, 5%
  • rubber, 4%
  • cosmetics, 2%
  • other, 10%
Exports of talc increased 20.2% to 220,000 t, while imports for consumption declined by 14.0% to 190,000 t. Canada remained the major destination for U.S. talc exports, accounting for 48% of the tonnage, while Mexico imported 12% of the U.S. export tonnage. The lower value of the U.S. dollar with respect to other currencies helped to boost export sales in 2007 and 2008. In 2008, Canada and China supplied approximately 83% of the imported talc. Table 3 illustrates world mine production of talc and pyrophyllite.

Apparent talc consumption in 2008 sank by 23.8% to 615,000 t. The declines in the housing market resulted in lower sales to construction-related applications. The continued slowdown of the U.S. and world economies, along with the tightening of the credit market, may exacerbate the situation. A major talc producer in New York announced that it would stop production by the end of 2008. The company cited declines in sales as the reason for its departure from the talc market after about 60 years of mining in the state.

Two companies in North Carolina mined pyrophyllite, and 2008 production decreased from that of 2007. In decreasing order by tonnage, consumption was in refractory products, ceramics and paint.

Tantalum

No significant U.S. tantalum mine production has been reported since 1959. Companies in the U.S. produced tantalum alloys, compounds and metal from imported concentrates, and metal and alloys were recovered from foreign and domestic scrap.

Tantalum was consumed mostly in the form of alloys, compounds, fabricated forms, ingot and metal powder. Apparent consumption decreased by 6.8% to 600 t in 2008. Exports jumped by 14.8% to 600 t, while imports increased slightly to 1200 t. In the 2004-2007 time period, imports of titanium contained in niobium (columbium) and tantalum ore and concentrate, tantalum metal, and tantalum waste and scrap included: Australia, 18%; China, 14%; Brazil, 12%; Japan, 10%; and other, 46%.

Tantalum capacitors were estimated to account for more than 60% of tantalum use. Major end uses for tantalum capacitors include automotive electronics, pagers, personal computers and portable telephones. The value of tantalum consumed in 2007 was estimated at about $162 million and was expected to be about $190 million in 2008 (as measured by the value of imports).

Roskill Information Services reports that there are mounting fears in the tantalum market that serious shortages are looming. Weak demand in consuming industries, particularly capacitors, coupled with large inventories in the supply chain, has kept tantalum prices low. Primary output has been slashed and processors are increasingly relying on stock drawdowns to make up the shortfall. If there is even a modest recovery in demand for tantalum in the near future, the market faces a difficult period.5

Titanium and Titanium Dioxide

Titanium sponge metal was produced by three operations in Nevada, Oregon and Utah in 2008, and ingot was produced by 10 operations in 10 states. An estimated 79% of the titanium metal was used in aerospace applications. The remaining 21% was used in armor, chemical processing, marine, medical, power generation, sporting goods and other non-aerospace applications.

The value of titanium mineral concentrates (ilmenite and rutile) consumed in the U.S. in 2008 was about $600 million. Zircon was a co-product of mining from ilmenite and rutile deposits. About 94% of titanium mineral concentrates was consumed by domestic titanium dioxide (TiO2) pigment producers. Global production of titanium mineral concentrates was estimated to have decreased slightly compared with that of 2007.

Production of TiO2 increased by 4.2% in 2008 to 1.5 Mt, and apparent consumption decreased by 5.0% to 930,000 t. Global production of TiO2 was estimated to have increased 2% compared with 2007 levels.  Imports decreased by 9.5% to 200,000 t, while exports jumped 12.9% to 770,000 t.

In 2008, TiO2 pigment production, which was valued at about $3.7 million, was handled by four companies at eight facilities in seven states. The estimated use of TiO2 pigment by end use was:
  • paint (includes lacquers and varnishes), 59%
  • plastic, 24%
  • paper, 12%
  • other (catalysts, ceramics, coated fabrics and textiles, floor coverings, printing ink, roofing granules), 5%


Table 4.

Zirconium and Hafnium

The principal economic source of zirconium is zircon (ZrSiO4), which is also the primary source of all hafnium. Zirconium and hafnium are contained in zircon at a ratio of about 50:1. Zircon is a co-product or byproduct of the mining and processing of heavy-mineral sands for the titanium minerals ilmenite and rutile, or tin minerals.

The major end uses of zircon are refractories, foundry sands (including investment casting) and ceramic opacification. Zirconium is used in nuclear fuel cladding, chemical piping in corrosive environments, heat exchangers and various specialty alloys. The major end uses of hafnium are in nuclear control rods, nickel-based superalloys, nozzles for plasma arc metal cutting, and high-temperature ceramics. Zirconates comprised 9% of demand for advanced ceramics materials in 2007.1

In 2008, global production of zirconium concentrates decreased about 5% compared with that of 2007, as production difficulties in Australia, Indonesia and Mozambique limited the availability (see Table 4). U.S. exports in 2008 for zirconium ores and concentrates decreased by 20.7% to 34,100 t, while zirconium oxide exports jumped 37.9% to 3310 t. Imports of zirconium ores and concentrates increased by 76.9% to 23,000 t in 2008, while zirconium oxide imports reached 5240 t, an uptick of 40.1%. Hafnium imports rose dramatically (150%) to 10 t.

Editor’s note: The foregoing information, except where noted, was compiled from the U.S. Geological Survey (www.usgs.gov). In most cases, 2008 data were the latest available. For additional details regarding the uses of some of these materials in the ceramic, glass and related industries, visit the Materials Handbook pages in this issue.

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