When discussion of titanium arises we naturally think of aerospace metals or sports equipment, but in reality, more than 90 percent of titanium is consumed as titanium dioxide (TiO2) by the pigments industry. Nevertheless, as with many more common metals, it is our old friend China that has been driving up prices of the mineral sands from which titanium dioxide is extracted, as the country’s ongoing construction boom generates an unprecedented demand for paints and pigments in a variety of forms. According to a Financial Times article, the cost of the principal source, Ilmenite, rose from $100 per metric ton to $300 in just six months from late 2010, while its lesser-mined brother, rutile, increased from $553 per metric ton to $1050 in just a year.
The Mineral Sands of Time
Mining companies’ share prices have followed in tandem as the markets have realized there is a limited supply base for the mining of these mineral sands. A familiar story of under-investment in the 1990s and 2000s has left the world with plenty of reserves, but a lack of facilities to mine them. Mineral sands production is pretty confined, concentrated in Australia and South Africa with hard rock extraction in Canada and Scandinavia. Mineral sands are by far the easiest source to mine (environmental damage to marine ecosystems notwithstanding) since placer deposits can simply be dredged or mined along the shoreline and the resulting sands do not require crushing — wave action does the concentration.
The Australian Minerals Atlas explains the process. As the heavy minerals are washed down to the sea following weathering of ancient hard rock deposits, they may accumulate as placer deposits in river channels or along coastal shorelines in a way similar to alluvial gold. In the beach intertidal zone, sand washed up on the beach drops out as wave impacts slow. As waves wash back, some of the lighter sand is carried back into the sea, leaving the heavy minerals behind on the beach. This constant wave action leads to a concentration of the heavier ilmenite and rutile minerals that typically have specific gravities of 4-5 against silica sand at 2.5.
Global demand and supply, in terms of nameplate capacity, were roughly balanced at 5 million tons/year each in 2008 before the financial crisis erupted, but ICIS.com news explains producers cut back hard in response to the 2008 global contraction while a number of miners went bust as the supply chain became paralyzed. In hindsight, the industry overreacted and, while demand is now back to pre-crisis levels, the supply side is still some 6-7 percent behind, creating a squeeze and the rise in prices.
Prices of TiO2 imports in Asia have risen by 6 percent since the start of the year to $2,510-2,600 per metric ton CFR Asia last week. As with so many other metals, TiO2 consumers are facing higher prices in their domestic markets than is appropriate for domestic supply and demand fundamentals; Asian (and particularly Chinese) demand continues to put upward pressure on prices. With some 36 million social housing units to be completed in China during the next five years, demand from the Chinese construction sector is expected to remain firm, as will TiO2 prices.