Feldspar’s future in flux

By Alex Feytis
Published: Tuesday, 03 July 2012

Consumption trends in the global market for feldspar and nepheline syenite are largely defined by demand from their major end-user industries of ceramics and glass.

By Alexandra Feytis, Correspondent

Consumption trends in the global market for feldspar and nepheline syenite are largely defined by demand from their major end-user industries of ceramics and glass.

The financial downtown of 2008-09 impacted these markets during that time, significantly reducing market revenues for the ceramic minerals. The economic recession resulted in noticeable declines in housing starts and a downturn in commercial construction projects, particularly in the developed countries in North America and western Europe, with construction being a primary user of ceramics and glass.

The scenario resulted in a significant drop in demand for automotive and residential flat glass: “The erosion in the housing construction market led to a slump in the overall consumption of feldspar in tile and porcelain pottery units used in sanitaryware,” Global Industry Analysts Inc. (GIA) told IM.

Global feldspar production dropped in 2009 with levels falling to 19.6m tonnes, which is nearly 14% lower than 2008 production figure. The situation, however, eased in the following years with production levels increasing to 20.7m tonnes in 2011, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS). World production has more than tripled since 1990.

But the feldspar market is still recovering from the downturn of the last crisis, with some regions and end markets performing better than others. GIA reported that the world market for feldspar and nepheline pegged at 11.6m tonnes in 2011 and is forecast to expand at a moderate pace to reach 13.9m tonnes by 2017.

The US-based market research company explained that Europe is backed by enhanced consumption and production from select markets of Italy, Turkey, France and Spain, the largest worldwide consumer of feldspar and nepheline syenite.

The consumption of feldspar in Europe and the US continues to be sluggish mainly on account of the slow-to-recover housing starts market, plants closures and increases in prices and imports.

In Europe, pending the long-drawn anti-dumping petition, the EU slapped hefty antidumping duties of about 70% on ceramic tiles imported from China for a period of five years. As GIA explained, the duties were imposed to save the interests and profit margins of domestic ceramic tile manufacturers in the EU.

Spain, one of the main consumers for feldspar, was the European country the most affected by the slowdown of 2008-09, which resulted in the collapse of the country’s construction sector.

According Pascual Castej—n, general manager at Spain-based ceramic minerals producer Euroarce, the sector declined from 800,000 new housing starts in 2006 to fewer than 50,000 in 2011. Sanitaryware is reported to have dropped more than 50% since 2009 and frits and glazes about 20%. ÊCastej—n reported that feldspars for tiles bodies, “where we are not producers but end-users”, decreased by over 35%.

“The crisis of the construction sector in Spain has been much more severe than in other European countries and has deeply affected our customers,” he said to IM.

Euroarce, which produces about 175,000 tpa floated potassium feldspar, supplies frits, glazes, sanitaryware, tableware and glass. Its main markets are Spain, Italy, North Africa and Turkey, but the Spanish company also supplies speciality products to central Europe, the UK and South America.

The fall has been lower in the rest of Europe, but there has been a decay which, together with the global financial crisis, has directly affected tile and sanitaryware production from Spanish and Italian companies.

“The financial situation in the country has seriously damaged many companies and it is not yet over,” Castej—n commented to IM.

“Volumes are lower and many ceramic producers are financially very weak, which also increases credit risks. Feldspar producers are looking since then for new emerging markets and partially finding them, but it is not easy because logistics are especially relevant for this mineral,” he added.

Despite of this, Castejon reported that customers had recovered partly because of a dramatic increase of their exports to East Europe and Asia.

“However, we have been able to perform quite successfully during this period of strong recession and our most relevant customers keep in good shape. This keeps us very confident about the future,” Castejon said, pointing out that “after a brisk downfall in 2009-10, the feldspar market is steady at the moment”.

The Asia Pacific region constitutes a major market, both in terms of sheer size as well as growth potential.

“The region - spurred by intense demand from China, Thailand, South Korea and India - is poised to demonstrate a robust growth rate over the years,” GIA said.

Sanitaryware, an important end user of feldspar, witnessed above-average growth in developing markets of China, parts of South East Asia, Mexico, South America and the Middle East.

 

Top 24 feldspar producing countries

Rate

Country

Production

(x1,000 tonnes)

1990

1995

2000

2005

2011*

 

1

Turkey

182

760.2 (x4.2)

1,200 (x1.6)

2,332 (x2)

5,000

x2 compare to 2005; x27.5 compare to 1990

2

Italy

1,610

2,199 (1.4)

2,600 (+18.2%)

3,995

4,700

x3 since 1990

3

China

NA

NA

NA

1,850

2,100

 

4

US

630

880

790

750

690

-8.5% since 2005

5

France

420*

632

600

650 (crude)

650

 

6

Republic of Korea

237

367.6

330

508.6

630

 

7

Thailand

311

670.1

543

1,150

620

 

8

Japan***

57.9

65

52

800

600

x10 since 1990

9

Spain**

214

379.3

425

650

580

 

10

Poland

32

46

NA

457

550

x17.2 since 1990

 * Estimated; ** Includes pergmatite;*** Includes apatite.

Source: USGS


Main producing countries

Feldspar is the most abundant group of minerals in the Earth’s crust, forming about 60% of terrestrial rocks. Feldspar reserves are found in various countries such as India, Czech Republic, Portugal and Poland among others.

Turkey and Italy are the top two producing countries, accounting for about 50% of the world production with almost 10m tpa estimated in 2011 according to the USGS (see table).

Turkey became the world’s leading feldspar producer in 2006, outpacing Italy, which had led feldspar production during the two previous decades. Between 2005 and 2001, Turkey almost doubled its output and during the past 21 years, its domestic production increased 27-fold to an estimated 5m tpa in 2011 from 182,000 tonnes in 1990. Meanwhile, Italy’s production grew three-fold to 4.7m tonnes from 1.6m tonnes during the corresponding period.

The two leading countries are followed by China (2.1m tonnes estimated in 2011), the US (690,000 tonnes), France (650,000 tonnes), and South Korea (630,000 tonnes).

Some countries, such as Poland, have showed a significant boost in production during the past few years. The eastern European country’s feldspar output increased 17-fold to an estimated 550,000 tonnes in 2011 from 32,000 tonnes in 1990, as its domestic ceramics production rocketed dramatically during the past two decades. The tile industry, which accounts for about 80% of feldspar consumption in the country, was a major demand driver.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s output rose to 180,000 tonnes last year compared with 9,900 tonnes in 1990. Germany was the only country to see its production drop significantly during the same time, from 418,000 tonnes to 150,000 tonnes.

The world’s top five producing companies, with capacity of >1m tpa, include Italy’s Gruppo Minerali Maffei SpA, France’s mining conglomerate Imerys SA, Turkey’s Kaltun Mining Co., Esan Eczacibasi Industrial Raw Minerals, and Cine Akmaden Madencilik Ticaret SA. Gruppo Minerali SpA became the largest feldspar producing company in the world when it took over Italy’s Maffei SpA in 2007.

The US

US feldspar production was valued at about $43m in 2011, according to the USGS. Last year, the country produced 690,000 tonnes, an 8.7% decrease compared with 2005.

Interestingly, US domestic feldspar consumption has gradually shifted from ceramics toward glass markets, with most of the raw material consumed for the manufacture of container glass.

In 2011, 70% of domestic feldspar in the US was estimated to be used for the glass industry - including beverage containers and insulation for housing and building construction - with about 30% dedicated for pottery and other uses (see panel: Feldspar at a glance).

“The glass container industry was moderately stable, although competing materials in some market segments, such as baby food, fruit juices, mineral water and wine, and a recent trend to import less expensive containers from China, continued to present challenges,” said USGS analyst Arnold Tanner.

“Additionally, increasing use of post-consumer glass collected through local government and neighbourhood recycling programmes continued to provide additional competition for traditional raw materials, such as feldspar in the manufacture of glass containers,” he added.

Gradual improvements that began in 2010 continued in 2011, while recovery for world economic markets from the economic recession in 2008 and 2009 continued to be slow.

Residential flat glass markets improved slightly in 2011, “but remained somewhat sluggish”, Tanner believes.

The USGS reported that housing starts were projected to increase a small amount in 2011, based on the first nine months, whereas housing completions were expected to decrease slightly. The USGS forecasts significantly fewer completions during the first half of the year compared with those of the corresponding period in 2010. In the meantime, commercial construction and automotive glass markets increased slightly.

India

India, which produced an estimated 410,000 tonnes feldspar in 2011 according to the USGS, could ban exports of feldspar and quartz in the next few months.

The Hindu’s Business Line reported in May 2012 that producers of ceramic tiles and sanitaryware have asked the Indian government to ban exports of feldspar and quartz; critical raw materials for the industries, which consume about 84% of domestic feldspar production.

Globalisation and new ventures have boosted demand for these two minerals resulting in a surge in exports which has led to a shortage locally, a steady rise in prices, and uncertainties in long-term strategies of the domestic sector, the Board of Indian Council of Ceramic Tiles and Sanitaryware said in a statement.

“Depletion of these raw materials will force domestic industries to rely heavily on imports. This will result in further escalation of input costs thereby making tiles and sanitaryware expensive for the end user,” said the industry body’s chairman, Sreekant Somany, pointing out that “it may also force many ceramic tile and sanitaryware manufacturers to shut down”.

During FY 2010, feldspar exports were 342,000 tonnes, accounting for more than 30% of the production, according to Business Line.

“Such huge exports of the raw material could cause a rapid depletion of the natural resource for domestic industry’s consumption, in turn creating panic amongst them,” Somany warned.

In India, the domestic feldspar market did not pick up due to the poor growth of housing sector during 2011-12 attributed to the high cost of interest rates on housing loans, Ajay Kulshreshtha from AK Minerals Consultancy Services, explained to IM.

According to Kulshreshtha, the country’s economic growth fell to 6.5% in 2011-12. India has also had to content with high inflation, and a slowdown in the housing and commercial construction sectors.

Kulshreshtha, therefore, believes that “the Indian feldspar industry will have to wait for some more time for the growth”.

Norway

In June 2011, Norway-based Sibelco Nordic (formerly North Cape Minerals AS) closed its pegmatite mine in Glamsland, near Lillesand, owing to falling market demand for feldspar.

The 90,000 tpa feldspar Lillesand plant, which also produced quartz, was the only facility globally to separate potassic and sodic feldspar from pegmatite via flotation.

Feldspar production continues at the Fossbekk branch of the Lillesand plant, while a Belgian sand source is used to supply the quartz facility.

Hilde Nordvick, plant manager and senior vice president development, explained to IM that the company decided to close the plant owing to expensive processing costs and falling demand for feldspar.

In recent years, the market for feldspar in Europe has been characterised by enormous pressure on prices and a simultaneous reduction in volumes resulting from competition and technological development. As a consequence, the flotation process and the demanding balance between the three main products became too costly in relation to what the market is willing to pay.

The market, notably in traditional cathode ray tube (CRT) TV sets, has declined steadily since the development of liquid crystal display (LCD) and plasma TV screens, also affecting consumption of minerals such as celestite.

Markets

Ceramics and glass industries are the major end-use markets for feldspathic minerals. According to GIA, consumption of feldspar is higher in tile producing regions such as China, Latin America, Spain, Italy and South East Asia.

The EU produces about a third of world tile output, with Italy and Spain being some of the largest tile producers in the region and Spain being the largest worldwide consumer of feldspar and nepheline syenite, capturing a substantial share of about 50% of the market in 2011.

In Europe, ceramic tiles are predominantly used as flooring, while North American consumers tend to use tiles as wall coverings. “Use of ceramic tiles and sanitaryware products in individual housing and commercial construction sector is likely to remain steady,” GIA told to IM.

The US-based market research company also underlined that container glass, the largest segment of the glass industry, “is displaying steady growth in some areas, particularly in China and South East Asia, where the market for beer and soft drinks is expected to grow faster than in other regions”.

However, in other regions, glass faces competition from alternative packaging materials like plastic, coated paper and aluminium.

In Asia Pacific, China is the largest supplier of feldspar to the domestic market as well as many South East Asian countries. The country, which is the world’s third largest feldspar producer after Turkey and Italy according to USGS data, produced 2.1m tonnes in 2011.

China’s rapidly growing economy continues to consume massive quantities of materials including ceramics and glass. “Demand from the country is one of the major factors influencing and driving global demand,” GIA stressed, as China’s auto and construction industries are major consumers of flat glass.

The USGS reported that feldspar use in tile and sanitaryware in the US and western Europe “continued to be sluggish because of the struggling housing market, some closures of plants, and increased imports”. The main growth markets for sanitaryware have been in China, Mexico, the Middle East, South America and South East Asia.

In the US, fibreglass consumption for thermal insulation is forecast to expand in line with housing and commercial building construction through 2013. According to the USGS, domestic feldspar consumption has been gradually shifting from ceramics towards glass markets. Solar glass, used in the production of solar cells, remains a growing segment in the glass industry.

In India, demand for ceramics is expected to increase with the growth in the housing sector. There is considerable scope in demand for fibreglass products, particularly due to growth in petrochemical sector and allied products.

Ajay Kulshreshtha, from AK Minerals Consultancy Services, told IM there has been “a phenomenal growth” during the past two decades in the field of technical ceramics to meet specific demands of industries like high-alumina ceramics, cutting tools and other structural ceramics.

According to Kulshreshtha, India produced 896,636 tonnes bottles/ bottle glassware during 2009-10 with imports worth Indian rupee (Rs) 16.7bn ($241m) and Rs 21.4bn ($308m), respectively.

The city of Firozabad in Uttar Pradesh, popularly known as the `Glass City of India’, is the chief centre of small-scale glass production units and accounts for about 70% production in the small-scale sector. “These units make the most innovative items of glass which are exported to different parts of the world,” said Kulshreshtha.

Challenges & opportunities

The feldspar industry’s health depends on the ups and downs of its end markets, principally ceramics and glass, which are closely related to the variations of the global economy. But the industry also has to face many growth inhibitors.

Among them, competition from substitutes, increasing energy and transportation costs, growing use of alternative packaging containers such as plastics, are the main factors slowing down the market.

As GIA underlined to IM, the use of glass cullet in preference to mineral raw materials also remains a source of concern for the feldspar industry.

In India, environmental concerns and illegal mining are the major issues in the country, which can also be held responsible for the negative mining sector growth to some extent.

Ajay Kulshreshtha also confirmed to IM that demand is still sluggish in the country, but believes that there are vast opportunities in technical ceramics from overseas customers especially from Europe, the US, China and the Middle Eastern regions.

On the other hand, feldspar production and capacity has been rising significantly since 1990, more than tripling to reach an estimated 20.7m tonnes in 2011 according to the USGS.

At present, the feldspar industry sees a “resilient demand from developing markets of Asia Pacific, Latin America, Middle East and Eastern European countries”, GIA outlined, in addition to a “substantial demand” from end-use industries such as ceramics, glass, fillers, abrasives/ chemicals, and latex.

A gradual revival is reported in the commercial and residential construction market, in addition to the automotive sector.

Alternatives

Pascual Castej—n, general manager at Spain-based Euroarce, told IM that “at the moment, it is difficult to find a better quality-price relationship for the markets that we are supplying”.

However, imported nepheline syenite remains the major alternative material. Feldspar can also be replaced in some of its end uses by clays, electric-furnace slag, feldspar-silica mixtures, pyrophyllite, spodumene and talc.

According to GIA, materials containing alkali metals confined to minerals other than feldspar, can be used as substitutes for feldspar, for instance nepheline syenites or nepheline phonolites, which can replace feldspars as a melting agent.

“As nepheline syenite is composed of soda and potash feldspars and nepheline, it adds alkalis and alumina to the glass composition. Further, because it contains a higher proportion of these oxides per unit weight, it is a formidable competitor for feldspar,” GIA said.

In other applications such as fine abrasives, filler in rubber, plastics and paints, feldspar can be replaced by bauxite, corundum, diatomite, garnet, magnetite, nepheline syenite, olivine, perlite, pumice, silica sand, staurolite, calcined alumina hydrate, clays, talc, spodumene and pyrophyllite or their mixtures.

Processed glass can be used in ceramic products including sanitaryware, tiles, pottery and tableware. Ground glass containing Na2O and K2O can replace nepheline syenite and feldspar as a flux agent to reduce raw material cost and energy consumption, added GIA.

“Alternatives for our feldspars might be seen in some lower quality applications in nepheline syenite as well as in sodic feldspars,” said Otto Hieber, general manager at Germany-based Amberger Kaolinwerke Eduard Kick GmbH & Co. KG.

Prices

During the past five years, the average US prices for feldspar have ranged $60-63/tonne, with a peak at $65/tonne during 2009 and 2010 from $60/tonne in 2007 and $62/tonne in 2008, according to the USGS.

GIA confirmed the trend to IM, adding that the US feldspar prices, which fell marginally to $62/tonne in 2011, “are likely to continue at the similar level in the near term”.

In China, the research company reported that prices for feldspar increased steadily during the past few years post-recession, particularly with respect to the ceramics industry. “The spike in prices in the region was pegged at a high 25-30% in the recent past, trigged mainly by raw material supply deficit,” GIA said.

On the domestic front in India, Kulshreshtha from AK Minerals Consultancy Services estimates that “the products are facing resistance to price increases due to the sluggish demand”.

Indian lump price ex-pit/mines is around $6-7/tonne, with prices for sodic feldspar being more important compared to potassic feldspar, Kulshreshtha reported.

“The probability of a more protracted period of stagnation seems high. At the same time, outlook for 2013 economic growth seems to be promising,” Kulshreshtha told to IM.

In Europe, Spanish floated K-feldspar in glass grade moves in a range of €58-65/tonne FOB Spanish Mediterranean port, while Turkish standard Na-Feldspar would be between €28-32/tonne CIF same port.

“The prices of sodium feldspar came down about €2-3/tonne four years ago and they have basically kept the same since then, despite periodical attempts to increase,” Pascual Castejon, general manager at Spain-based Euroarce, told to IM.

Castej—n revealed that the floated and special feldspars, such as those produced by Euroarce, “could have higher prices” but remain at more ‘normal’ levels.

According to him, the standard grades of sodium feldspar for tiles, mostly Turkish, “are however living a war of prices, which has already lasted three or four years, due to the lack of differentiation of the products and the decrease of the consumption volumes”.

Castejon remains cautious: “I do not expect an increase at least for the short future. Afterwards, who knows.”

Outlook

The feldspar industry remains cautious as the last financial downturn impacted the glass and ceramic industries, its main markets. However, growth is expected from developing countries, particularly in Asia. GIA told IM that increased production of ceramics, particularly in China as well as in some traditional producers such as Italy and Spain “is currently presenting huge opportunities for growth”.

Kulshreshtha confirmed to IM that Asian countries such as India and China “serve as big markets which will help in keeping the balance globally and I feel that by 2013 the demand will pick up”.

In terms of end uses, sustained increased demand from major markets of glass, ceramics, fillers, adhesives and others should propel future growth in the industry. “Further, continued demand for feldspar and nepheline syenite from fast emerging markets, such as Asia Pacific, and Latin America, is expected to fuel market growth over the years,” GIA forecast.

In the US, fibreglass consumption for thermal insulation is expected to rise in parallel to the domestic housing and commercial building construction market through 2013, according to the USGS.

In Spain, Castejon from Spain-based Euroarce warned of progressive market consolidation as small producers remain affected by economic uncertainty. “This has been already happening during the last years,” he told IM.

In India, Kulshreshtha believes that demand for feldspar will remain under pressure as the global economy contends with Eurozone woes and a potential slowdown in China.

“Some superior grades for some special applications will remain positive, for which value-added products will be in demand,” he told to IM, warning, however, that “one has to remain cautious”.