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The U.S. economy took a beating in 2008, and a good portion of the rest of the world followed suit. A mortgage crisis decimated the already depressed U.S. housing market. Financial institutions soon followed, resulting in what has been called a worldwide recession. To add insult to injury, the three largest players in the U.S. automotive industry are, at press time, struggling to survive. Despite billions of dollars in government bailout packages and programs, the recovery period-once it even begins-is sure to be long. This ship can’t be turned around on a dime.
The repercussions for the ceramic, glass and related industries are not pretty. Housing starts are at their lowest level in years, automotive production is down, and consumers are just not buying anything like they used to. Even the electronics market, which has historically provided growth opportunities, is struggling.
The overall landscape is not completely bleak, however. The depressed value of the U.S. dollar is providing domestic manufacturers relief through opportunities for increased exports. Growth is even being forecasted for some regions of the world, and some materials-like abrasives, boron, silicon, soda ash and zirconium-are expected to see increased demand.
AbrasivesFused aluminum oxide was produced by two companies at three plants in the U.S. and Canada. Production of regular-grade fused aluminum oxide had an estimated value of $1.92 million, while high-purity fused aluminum oxide was estimated to have a value of more than $4.79 million. Imports for consumption of fused aluminum oxide increased by 13.4% to 237,000 t in 2007, while exports increased by 15.7% to 17,700 t.
Silicon carbide was produced in the U.S. by two companies at two plants in 2007, and domestic production of crude silicon carbide had an estimated value of about $26.8 million. Imports for consumption decreased significantly to 155,000 t in 2007 (vs. 186,000 t in 2006). Exports were down as well, though less dramatically (19,100 t in 2007 compared to 20,300 t the prior year).
Bonded and coated abrasive products accounted for most abrasive uses of fused aluminum oxide and silicon carbide. Imports and higher operating costs continued to challenge producers in the U.S. and Canada. Foreign competition, particularly from China, is expected to persist and further curtail production in North America.
According to The Freedonia Group, demand for abrasives in the U.S. is forecast to increase 2.3% per year through 2011 to $5.3 billion, with raw material demand reaching $1.4 billion. Demand for nonmetallic abrasives is expected to significantly outperform that of metallic abrasive products through 2011. Non-metallic abrasives demand will be bolstered by strong increases in the use of manufactured loose abrasive grains, supported by the continual shift toward higher value products, particularly garnet, manufactured diamond, specialty silicas and silicon carbide. Advances in this product segment will also be buoyed by above-average gains in the chemical mechanical planarization (CMP) slurry market.
Freedonia predicts that increases in abrasive raw material demand will be led by manufactured minerals, as superabrasives such as manufactured diamond and cubic boron nitride continue to be highly utilized due to their hardness and superior performance characteristics. Demand for natural minerals used in abrasive applications is expected to post slower gains, although these increases will represent a recovery from the declines of the 2001-2006 period.1
Bauxite and AluminaNearly all bauxite consumed in the U.S. was imported, and imports for consumption in 2007 declined by 23% to 10 Mt. Bauxite exports decreased as well, to 29,000 t (down 33%). Domestic bauxite was used in the production of nonmetallurgical products, such as abrasives, chemicals and refractories.
More than 90% of bauxite imports were converted to alumina. Of the total alumina used, the majority went to primary aluminum smelters (about 90%). Annual alumina capacity was 5.75 Mt, with three Bayer refineries operating throughout the year and one temporarily idled. The U.S. imported 2.3 Mt of alumina in 2007, a 22% decrease from the previous year.
World production of alumina declined slightly compared with that of 2006. Based on production data from the International Aluminium Institute, world alumina production during the first two quarters of 2007 decreased less than 1% compared with that for the same period in 2006. Expansions of bauxite mines in China, Brazil and Guyana accounted for most of the 6% increase in worldwide production of bauxite, offsetting declines caused by a strike in Guinea and reduced production from Russia (see Table 1).
BerylliumEstimated 2007 beryllium consumption of 91 t was valued at about $28 million (based on the estimated unit value for beryllium in imported beryllium-copper master alloy). Based on sales revenues, nearly one-half of beryllium use was estimated to be in computer and telecommunications products, and the remainder was in aerospace and defense applications, appliances, automotive electronics, industrial components, and other applications.
Beryllium was recycled mostly from new scrap generated during the manufacture of beryllium products. Detailed data on the quantities of beryllium recycled are not available, but may represent as much as 10% of apparent consumption.
During the first half of 2007, the leading U.S. beryllium producer sold a lower volume of bulk and strip beryllium-copper alloy products than it did during the first half of 2006. Sales of beryllium products for defense applications and medical and industrial X-ray equipment were higher than those during the first half of 2006; sales of beryllium blanks to an experimental nuclear fusion reactor in Europe continued in 2007. Sales of beryllium-aluminum products were higher than those during the first half of 2006, while sales of beryllium oxide ceramics were the same during the two periods.
BoronThe estimated value of boric oxide contained in minerals and compounds produced in 2007 was withheld to prevent disclosure of individual company proprietary data. Boron minerals, primarily sodium borates, were produced domestically by two companies in southern California. The leading producer operated an open pit tincal and kernite mine and associated compound plants. A second company produced borax and boric acid using saline brines as the raw material. A third company that previously processed calcium and calcium sodium borates became a trader and sold from inventory and imported products, while a fourth company has been idle since 2003.
Boron minerals and chemicals were principally consumed in the North Central and Eastern U.S. The most recent estimated distribution pattern breakdown for boron compounds consumed in the U.S. is for 2006, and includes glass and ceramics, 72%; soaps, detergents and bleaches, 4%; agriculture, 3%; enamels and glazes, 3%; and other, 18%.
Although production data were withheld, the U.S. was a major world producer of refined boron compounds during 2007. As in previous years, U.S.-processed products had fewer impurities and were produced with lower emissions and with a higher productivity per worker hour than in other countries. It was reported that a leading indicator for demand for refined borates was a strong housing market. The demand for housing, which began to decrease at year-end 2006, remains depressed to date.
Exported U.S. borate materials competed with borax, boric acid, colemanite and ulexite, primarily from Turkey, the leading producer of boron ore in the world. China, Eastern Europe and India are favorable areas for increased borates consumption because of their growing economies. Significant strides in industrialization, urbanization, foreign investment and free trade should increase the demand for borates over the next several years.
ClaysClay and shale production was reported in 42 states for 2007. About 200 companies operated approximately 800 clay pits or quarries. The leading 20 firms supplied about 50% of the tonnage and 75% of the value for all types of clay sold or used in the U.S. In 2007, domestic producers estimated that sales or use would be 40.6 Mt valued at $1.80 billion. Estimated major uses for specific clays included:
- ball clay-41% floor and wall tile, 31% sanitaryware, and 28% other uses
- bentonite-26% absorbents, 23% drilling mud, 19% foundry sand bond, 15% iron ore pelletizing, and 17% other uses
- common clay-57% brick, 18% cement, 17% lightweight aggregate, and 8% other uses
- fireclay-72% heavy clay products, 22% refractory products, and 6% other uses
- fuller’s earth-70% absorbent uses and 30% other uses
- kaolin-62% paper and 38% other uses
Clay imports declined approximately 23% in 2007, to 34.8 Mt. Major sources of imported clay included Brazil (kaolin), Greece (bentonite), Mexico (activated clay) and the UK (kaolin). Major markets for exported clays, by descending order of tonnage, were Canada (bentonite and kaolin), Japan (bentonite and kaolin), Mexico (kaolin), Finland (kaolin), the Netherlands (bentonite and kaolin), China (kaolin), and Taiwan (kaolin). Exports increased a bit to 6.1 Mt in 2007, up from 6.0 Mt in 2006.
CobaltThe U.S. did not mine or refine cobalt in 2007; however, negligible amounts of byproduct cobalt were produced as intermediate products from some mining operations. U.S. supply comprised imports (9700 t in 2007), stock releases and secondary materials such as cemented carbide scrap, spent catalysts and superalloy scrap. The worldwide availability of refined cobalt during the first half of 2007 was nearly equal to that of the first half of 2006. World demand for cobalt reportedly was slightly higher during the first half of 2007 than that of the first half of 2006. By late November 2007, the price of cobalt cathode had increased to nearly $40 per pound.
Sixty-five industrial consumers were surveyed on a monthly or annual basis, and data reported by these consumers indicate that 45% of the cobalt consumed in the U.S. was for use in superalloys, which are used mainly in aircraft gas turbine engines; 9% was for use in cemented carbides for cutting and wear-resistant applications; 14% for various other metallic applications; and 32% for a variety of chemical applications. The total estimated value of cobalt consumed in 2007 was $600 million.
In recent years, China has become the world’s leading producer of refined cobalt, and much of its production has been from cobalt-rich ores imported from Congo (Kinshasa). In 2006, the Government of Congo (Kinshasa) began to enforce a ban on exports of unprocessed cobalt. As a result, Chinese imports of ores declined and imports of cobalt intermediates from Congo (Kinshasa) increased. In 2007, estimated cobalt mine production from Congo (Kinshasa) decreased for the first time in more than a decade.
The Chinese cobalt industry was expected to develop more domestic and foreign sources of cobalt supply, to invest in African cobalt projects, to increase the recycling of cobalt scrap, to continue to shift its consumption toward more downstream materials, and to consolidate into fewer larger companies. U.S. imports of cobalt from China increased steadily over the 2003-06 time period.
Global Industry Analysts, Inc. reports that world demand for cobalt is rising due to its increased use in mobile phone batteries, false limbs, rechargeable automobile batteries, catalysts in industrial processes and fighter jets. In addition, the worldwide cobalt market, expected to reach a volume of 69,000 t by 2012, is witnessing a shift toward nickel-based production from copper-based production. On the consumption front, the majority of consumers are increasingly opting for inferior-quality cobalt (vs. primary cobalt), owing to high variations in pricing. On the other hand, notwithstanding the price factor, the demand for cobalt in specialized applications (where the option of substitute materials is not viable) is on the rise.3
Feldspar and Nepheline SyeniteIt is estimated that feldspar shipments went to at least 30 states and to foreign destinations, including Canada and Mexico, in 2007. Feldspar exports increased 10% in 2007, to approximately 11 Mt, while imports decreased by 20% to 4 Mt.
Apparent consumption declined to 753 Mt in 2007 (down slightly from 755 Mt in 2006). The estimated 2007 end-use distribution of domestic feldspar was glass, 63%; and pottery and other, 37%. Glass, including beverage containers and insulation for housing and building construction, continued to be the leading end use of feldspar in the U.S. U.S. shipments of glass containers in the first nine months of 2007 were slightly higher than in the comparable period of 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Feldspar use in tile and vitreous sanitaryware continued to suffer the fate of the housing market. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. housing starts for the first nine months of 2007 were about 25% lower than in the same period of 2006. The downward trend continues.
U.S. feldspar production in 2007 had an estimated value of about $45 million, slightly higher than the $43 million of 2006. Operations in North Carolina provided about 45% of the output; facilities in Virginia, California, Oklahoma, Georgia, Idaho and South Dakota (in descending order of estimated production) produced the remainder. Feldspar processors reported coproduct recovery of mica and silica sand.
According to Roskill Information Services, economic deposits of feldspar are known in at least 70 countries, with production currently undertaken in over 50 countries. Roskill estimates total production of feldspars and associated aplite, phonolite and China stone in 2006 at 20 Mt, plus 1.4 Mt of nepheline syenite used in competitive applications with feldspar. About 1 Mt per year of additional nepheline syenite for use in making alumina and for aggregates is also produced.
Once available only from Canada, Norway and Russia, nepheline syenite projects in a number of countries have been developed. Brazil, China and Turkey have brought nepheline syenite projects into production for feldspathic uses, and Iran is doing a feasibility study for its use in alumina production.4
Rare Earths and YttriumThe U.S. continued to be a major importer, exporter and consumer of rare earth products in 2007. The estimated value of refined rare earths consumed in the U.S. was more than $1 billion. Based on final 2006 reported data, the estimated 2006 distribution of rare earths by end use was as follows:
- automotive catalytic converters, 25%
- petroleum refining catalysts, 22%
- metallurgical additives and alloys, 20%
- glass polishing and ceramics, 11%
- rare-earth phosphors for lighting, televisions, computer monitors, radar and X-ray intensifying film, 10%
- permanent magnets, 3%
- medical and lasers, 3%
- other, 6%
One of the industry’s outstanding features in recent years, according to Roskill Information Services, has been the rapid growth in demand for NdFeB magnets, which has exceeded 15% per year. The poor recoveries of neodymium in the overall conversion of oxide to magnetic alloy or powder have led to an almost total depletion of stocks, forcing prices up. Forecast demand is so strong that it seems inevitable that some ores could be processed solely for the neodymium content.5
SilicaSands and gravels with high silicon dioxide (SiO2) content are used in glassmaking; for foundry, abrasive, and hydraulic fracturing (frac) applications; and for many other industrial uses. The specifications for each use vary, but silica resources for most applications are abundant.
While no U.S. firms reported the production of cultured quartz crystals in 2007, production capacity still exists in the U.S. using imported and stockpiled lascas as feed material. In the past several years, cultured quartz crystal was increasingly produced overseas, primarily in Asia. Electronic applications accounted for most industrial uses of quartz crystal, while other uses included special optical applications. Virtually all quartz crystal used for electronics was cultured rather than natural crystal. Electronic-grade quartz crystal was essential for making filters, frequency controls and timers in electronic circuits employed for a range of products.
Trends indicate that demand for quartz crystal devices should continue to grow, and, consequently, quartz crystal production should remain strong well into the future. Growth of the consumer electronics market (for products such as personal computers, electronic games, and cellular telephones) will continue to drive global production. The growing global electronics market may require additional production capacity worldwide.
Industrial sand and gravel valued at about $883 million was produced by 68 companies from 138 operations in 34 states. Leading states, in order of tonnage produced, were Illinois, Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin, Texas, California, Oklahoma and Minnesota. Combined production from these states represented 61% of the domestic total. A breakdown of applications for the U.S. tonnage includes:
- glassmaking sand, 33%
- foundry sand, 16%
- hydraulic fracturing sand and well-packing and cementing sand, 15%
- ground silica and whole-grain silica, 11%
- building products, 10%
- other uses, 15%
Imports of industrial sand and gravel in 2007 decreased by about 32% compared with those of 2006. Imports of silica are generally of two types: small shipments of very high-purity silica or a few large shipments of lower-grade silica shipped only under special circumstances (for example, very low freight rates). Exports of industrial sand and gravel in 2007 remained essentially unchanged compared with those of 2006.
The U.S. was the world’s leading producer and consumer of industrial sand and gravel based on estimated world production figures. It was difficult to collect definitive data on silica sand and gravel production in most nations because of the wide range of terminology and specifications from country to country. The U.S. remained a major exporter of silica sand and gravel, shipping it to almost every region of the world. The high level of exports was attributed to the high quality and advanced processing techniques for a variety of grades of domestic silica sand and gravel, meeting virtually every specification.
The industrial sand and gravel industry continued to be concerned with safety and health regulations and environmental restrictions in 2007. Local shortages were expected to continue to increase, owing to local zoning regulations and land development alternatives. These situations are expected to cause future sand and gravel operations to be located farther from high-population centers.
Silicon and PolysiliconThe markets for silicon and ferrosilicon enjoyed an unprecedented rate of growth in 2007, according to Roskill Information Services, due mainly to increased demand for silicones and solar cells in the case of silicon, and to rapid expansion in global steelmaking in the case of ferrosilicon. (Although supplied to very different markets, the prices of silicon and ferrosilicon follow very similar trends because of the similarity in production processes, as well as the importance of the supply and cost of power in their production.)
With demand for silicon in silicones expected to grow at some 10% per year in coming years, as well as robust demand for aluminum-silicon alloys, overall demand should expand at about 8% per year to 2011. Demand for ferrosilicon as an alloying agent in carbon, stainless and alloy steels is at an all-time high and continues to rise, with growth rates of over 6% in world steel output. Silicon prices appeared set to remain high into 2008 despite a fall-off in demand from the U.S. automobile sector for cast aluminum silicon alloys.
Several European and North American silicon producers are taking advantage of the extremely rapid growth in demand for high-value, solar-grade silicon, which, although small in volume terms, provides much higher profit margins than bulk markets. World annual polysilicon capacity is likely to increase to more than 60,000 t by 2010, driven by the solar energy market.6
According to Global Industry Analysts, Inc., the European market for silicon and ferrosilicon is estimated at 1.7 Mt; Europe and North America account for over 55% of the global silicon and ferrosilicon market. Worldwide demand for silicon in metallurgy applications is estimated at 573,000 t, while consumption of silicon in the U.S. semiconductor industry is expected to grow at a compounded annual rate of 6.3% from 2001-2010.7
Soda AshThe total value of domestic soda ash (sodium carbonate) produced in 2007 was estimated to be about $1.3 billion. The U.S. soda ash industry comprised four companies in Wyoming operating five plants, one company in California with one plant, and one company with one mothballed plant in Colorado that owns one of the Wyoming plants. The five producers have a combined annual nameplate capacity of 14.5 Mt.
Apparent U.S. consumption declined 1.6% to 6 Mt in 2007. Based on final 2006 reported data, the estimated 2007 distribution of soda ash by end use was:
- glass, 50%
- chemicals, 29%
- soap and detergents, 9%
- distributors, 4%
- miscellaneous uses, 3%
- flue gas desulfurization and pulp and paper, 2% each
- water treatment, 1%
The economic slowdowns in domestic automobile production and housing starts that affected soda ash consumption in 2006 continued through 2007 and worsened in 2008. Notwithstanding the continuing economic and energy problems in certain areas of the world, overall global demand for soda ash is expected to grow from 1.5 to 2% annually for the next several years.
Though soda ash consumption has been relatively flat over the past decade, renewed demand stems from China and other developing economies of Asia and Latin America, according to Global Industry Analysts, Inc. Demand is mainly being driven by strong demand for float glass, which is buoyed by heavy construction activity in these regions.8
Talc and PyrophylliteThe total estimated crude ore value of 2007 domestic talc production was $26 million from 12 talc-producing mines in seven states. Companies in Montana, New York, Texas and Vermont accounted for most of the domestic production. Domestically produced ground talc was used in:
- ceramics, 33%
- paint, 20%
- paper, 16%
- roofing, 8%
- plastics, 5%
- rubber, 3%
- cosmetics, 1%
- other, 14%
Production and sales of talc in 2007 declined 6 and 9%, respectively, from 2006. U.S. exports of talc increased 23% to 220,000 t, while imports decreased by 33% to 210,000 t compared with those of 2006. The lower value of the U.S. dollar relative to other currencies was a major cause of these large trade changes. In addition, imports were unusually high in 2006. A significant portion of the additional talc imported was probably stockpiled and entered commerce in 2007, thereby reducing imports in 2007.
Canada remained the major destination for U.S. talc exports, accounting for 44% of the tonnage. Mexico was another significant importer of U.S. talc, accounting for 11% of the tonnage. In 2007, Canada and China supplied approximately 85% of the imported talc. Apparent consumption decreased by 20% in 2007. The large quantity of imports may have skewed the apparent consumption calculation in 2006. With 2006 imports adjusted to account for likely stockpiling, the actual change in apparent consumption in 2007 was probably 8 to 10%.
The average value of processed talc increased to $110 per ton from $90 per ton in 2006. This is an artifact of more accurate reporting by a major producer in 2007 rather than a drastic change in talc pricing. In addition, some talc values reported by companies for 2003 to 2006 on the USGS annual canvass may not have included energy surcharges that were instituted during the past five years by the producers. Talc values probably increased 4 to 6% per year since 2003.
World production of talc has hovered between 8 and 9 Mt since 2002, averaging about 8.6 Mt. Production was estimated at 8.1 Mt in 2007 compared with 8.9 Mt in 2006. Updated information indicates that production in China and the Republic of Korea in 2006 may be significantly less than previously reported. Production in other major producing countries appears to be relatively unchanged.
According to a recent report from Global Industry Analysts, Inc., the global talc and pyrophyllite market is expected to grow steadily and reach 9.6 Mt by 2012, representing a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.8% over the period 2008-2012. The Asia-Pacific region (excluding Japan) is the largest market for talc and pyrophyllite in the world, accounting for a share of over 32.4% of the global market in 2008, followed by Europe with a share of 20.9%. The Asia-Pacific region (excluding Japan) is also expected to offer the highest growth potential for talc and pyrophyllite, with a CAGR of about 3.23% through the period 2000-2010, followed closely by Latin America at 3.1%. The U.S., Japan and Europe, which represent mature markets for talc and pyrophyllite, are expected to offer relatively slower growth opportunities.
The paper and ceramic markets are drifting away from talc use, as grounded and precipitated calcium carbonate is increasingly gaining ground in paper fillers, according to the report. On the other hand, pyrophyllite is facing competition from the higher-performance mag-carbon and dolomite-carbon products in the refractories industry. Hence, it is anticipated that growth of talc lies outside these two markets in the future.9
Zirconium and HafniumTwo firms produced zircon from surface-mining operations in Florida and Virginia in 2007. Zirconium and hafnium metal were produced from zircon by two domestic producers, one in Oregon and the other in Utah. Typically, both elements are in the ore in a zirconium-to-hafnium ratio of about 50:1. Zirconium chemicals were produced by the metal producer in Oregon and by at least 11 other companies. Zirconia (ZrO2) was produced from zircon at plants in Alabama, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Tennessee and by the metal producer in Oregon.
Ceramics, opacifiers, refractories and foundry applications are the leading end uses for zircon. Other end uses of zircon include abrasives, chemicals, metal alloys, welding rod coatings and sandblasting. The leading consumers of zirconium and hafnium metal are the nuclear energy and chemical process industries.
Domestic consumption of zirconium mineral concentrates decreased slightly compared with that of 2006. Although consumption of zircon for use in television glass decreased significantly, consumption of zircon increased for ceramic, refractory and chemical uses.
In 2007, new mine production began in Australia (Murray Basin, Tiwi Islands), Indonesia (Kalimantan), Mozambique (Moma), and The Gambia (Sanyang). Projects that were nearing completion included those in Australia (Keysbrook) and South Africa (Tormin). Additional projects were also being developed in Australia (Coburn Sands, Donald, Eucla Basin and Murray Basin), Canada (Athabasca Oil Sands), India (Tamil Nadu), Kenya (Kwale), Madagascar (Fort Dauphin), Mozambique (Corridor Sands), Senegal (Grande Côte) and South Africa (Xolobeni). The availability of hafnium, produced as a byproduct during zirconium metal processing, continued to exceed demand.
Editor’s note: The foregoing information, except where noted, was compiled from the U.S. Geological Survey (www.usgs.gov). In most cases, 2007 data were the latest available.