The emergence of Afghanistan as a significant talc supplier

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Published: Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Ian Wilson, consultant, UK, takes a look at the Asian talc market and discusses the sources of new talc in the market, including Afghanistan, where high-quality white talc is being exported to all continents, and even some to China.

Global talc production in 2010 was estimated at 6m tonnes with 18 companies, including nine from China, accounting for 75% of total output. Within the past few years, the two leading talc producers in the world have changed hands. Talc de Luzenac (Rio Tinto Group), the largest producer, was acquired by French-based company Imerys in 2011, while Mondo Minerals Holdings BV, which was originally acquired from Omya AG in 2007 by Hg Capital, was sold to US-based Advent International in October 2011 .

Chinese talc production remains stable at 2m tpa, with output continuing from Liaoning, Shandong and Guangxi Provinces. India continues to develop and is now the second-largest producing country behind China. A decline in the use of talc as a paper filler has been more than offset by good growth in the use of talc in polymers, especially for automobile parts. New sources of talc are now being offered from Pakistan and North Korea. However, while Pakistan is credited with much of the new talc in the market, the majority is from Afghanistan, where high-quality white talc is being exported, via Pakistan, to all continents, and even some to China.

Talc can show variable mineralogy with the presence of chlorite, carbonate and other minerals. This can be represented on a triangle with the points as talc, chlorite and carbonate/others as shown in Figure 1. The Finnish deposits of Mondo Minerals, when beneficiated with flotation, become a purer talc with removal of contaminants. Talc can vary in colour with examples of white, pink, greyish and green types as seen in Figure 2 overleaf.





Global talc production

Estimated global talc production for 2011 is 6m tpa, with Asia accounting for 54% followed by Europe (24%), North America (12%), South America (8%) and Oceania/Africa (2%) Eleven countries account for 91% of output, with 34 other countries accounting for the remaining 9%. China accounts for 33% of the total output.

Capacity of Asia output in 2010 was 3.27m tonnes, of which China accounts for 63%, followed by India with 26%. Output in Europe in 2010 was 1.4m tonnes, dominated by Finland (35%) and France (29%).

Globally, there are 18 companies with output of fewer than 100,000 tpy and nine of these are from China. The Chinese data needs to be updated, but accurate details are becoming more difficult to obtain. Imerys is the leading company with 20% of production. In Figure 3, the nine leading companies outside China are shown, plus China shown and other companies.








Markets

Global

The global markets of 6m tpa in 2010 were paper (34%), followed by polymer (23%), ceramics - including technical ceramics (15%), paint (12%) and others (16%).

It is beyond the scope of this report to cover all of the markets so just a few sectors will be considered.

Technical Ceramics

Talc is a key component in the honeycomb structure of technical ceramics used in catalytic converters and diesel particulate filters. With increased emission controls, this sector is showing good growth. The talc required should be <0.20wt. % CaO, which is critical to the coefficient of thermal expansion (CET). Customers developing ultra-thin wall substrates require macrocrystalline talc to control porosity of the cell walls.

Polypropylene (PP)

Automotive under-the-hood/bonnet parts require high-aspect ratio talc to enable under-the-hood parts (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning units) to perform over a wide temperature range. High-purity grades are ideal for the long-term thermal stability of such parts.

Polymer Applications

In polymer applications, around 75% talc is used in the automotive industry, primarily in polypropylene (PP). The talc imparts stiffness to PP, with a 20%-loading increasing stiffness by up to 80%. The shift to PP was driven by Japanese auto makers, who reduced the number of parts and total cost of their cars. Polymer compounders tend to use the finest particle size and whitest talc products available.

Peter Taylor and David Stuart of UK-based mineral and chemical supplier, Richard Baker Harrison Ltd (RBH), in looking at trends in the use of talc in plastics have noted an increasing trend away from the “standard ground white talc”. The less critical markets, which have more cost pressures, have been moving to purer, but lower-brightness talc, as an alternative to whiter, but less pure, talc.

For more critical applications in the automotive industry, there has been a move to finer whiter talc. RBH has a new grade of high-whiteness 2500 mesh talc that gives impressive results in talc-filled PP. The new talc-filled compound shows good properties with respect to flex modulus, HDT (Heat Distortion Temperature) and scratch resistance.





Processing

Talc is beneficiated in many ways, including flotation, wet-milling, dry-milling by roller mills and jet mills. With improving quality required, particularly for polymers, CommodasUltrasort has developed sensor-based sorting on a colour basis with the separation of black, grey, yellow and red impurities.

There are currently 10 operating units separating talc in the world. It is also possible to use Near-Infrared (NIR) where colours are the same, but mineralogy is different, for example separating out white carbonate from white talc. An example of a current operation is colour sorting of Talc 7-20mm size (wet), where the objective is to separate the greenish talc product from white quartz and red, yellow, dark, black and other minerals. Brightness is increased by more than three points, more than 50% of the quartz is liberated, and yellow is reduced by 50%.

At the processing plant stage, black and white talc are separated from black and brownish rocks and yellow carbonates.

Germany-based Hosokawa-Alpine is one of many companies that supply equipment for processing talc. Pure talc processes easily, but care must be taken where abrasive contaminants, such as quartz and dolomite, are present. Because of this, two systems are used for dry grinding talc to preserve the platy structure:

- The Alpine table roller mill - AWM produces particle sizes of around 20 microns. The table roller mill has low energy requirements, gives steep particle size distribution and is extremely wear-resistant.

- For superfine grinding to around 1 micron, the Alpine AFG jet mill is utilised with a multi-wheel classifier. The 800/3 AFG and 1250/AFG jet mills are presently being used by every market leader in the talc sector.





The US

USGS mineral commodity specialist Bob Virta is a talc specialist and his findings provide some of the most detailed information on both the US and global talc markets. According to his figures, talc production in the US in 2010 was 455,000 tonnes, of which the major market, based on volume, was ceramics (24%), followed by paper (22%) and paint (19%).

US production is dominated by four major players - Imerys, SMI, IMI FABI Talc Co. and American Talc Co. For imports, 2010 figures show talc came mainly from China in lump form (44% of total), with Canada accounting for 38%. The average price of imported Chinese lump was $191/tonne, with Canadian processed talc averaging $358/tonne. A total of 241,000 tonnes of talc were imported into the US, led by China (105,000), Canada (91,700), Japan (3,040), France (1,910), Brazil (1,150) and 29 other countries (38,600).

Meanwhile, 234,000 tonnes of talc, mainly white, high-quality talc, were imported, with the major use being in plastics (60%) followed by cosmetics (13%) and paint (11%).

This shows that the US plastics market relies mainly on imported talc. The US market in 2010 was 689,000 tonnes with 66% being produced from local sources of talc and 34% from imported, mainly white, talc. The overall market split covering both local and imported talc shows plastics being the largest sector (26%) followed by ceramics (18%) and paint and paper both on 16%.

USGS’ Virta reports that in 2011 US imports of talc increased 20% compared with 2010, with imports from China and Pakistan accounting for a major share of that rise. Australia, Canada, China and Pakistan supplied approximately 90% of the talc imported into the US in 2011.

Imports from Australia and Pakistan rose significantly in 2011 because of increased imports by two companies, one affiliated with an Australian talc producer and a second, a mineral trading company. However, it is not believed that all imports have entered commerce, and it is likely that 30,000-40,000 tonnes were used to replenish inventories.

A major part of the talc imported from Pakistan is from Afghanistan, but shipped from Karachi. For example Omar Associates (Pvt) Ltd, Pakistan, made various shipments from 9 May 2010 to 17 January 2012 from Karachi to Gramercy and New Orleans, Louisiana. The tonnage was 75,000 tonnes (mainly lump) for delivery IMI FABI plants. Smaller amounts were delivered elsewhere in the US.





China

China accounts for one-third of the world’s production of talc, at present around 2m tonnes. A quota system remains in place and a total of 407,994 tonnes covering 40 companies was granted for the first half of 2012. Nine companies account for 60% of the export quotas, with three, Guilin Guiguang Talc Development Co. Ltd, Liaoning Jiayi Metals & Minerals Co. Ltd and Guangxi Great-Chem Minerals Trading Co. Ltd, accounting for 30% of that total.

Exports

Export of lump talc from 1998 to 2011 with tonnage and pricing is shown in Figure 4 and demonstrates that volumes have reduced by almost half, while prices have increased by three times.

For milled-talc powder, the recent trend has been to increase exports and pricing, as shown in Figure 5.

This trend is clearly for increasing exports of powder and reducing exports of lump talc, as shown in Figure 6.

In 1998, exports by volume of talc powder were 44%, with 56% for talc lump. In 2011, the powder exports represented 64%, with 36% for talc lump (see Figure 7). Clearly, China will continue this trend with more value-added products being exported.

Exports of talc lump from China in 2011 were 241,108 tonnes with a value of $45.1m at an average fob price of $187.3. Japan and the US account for 79% of the total exports, as shown in Figure 8.

Talc powder exports from China in 2011 totalled 430,126 tonnes, with a value of $111.4m and an average price of $259/tonne. Japan (22%), Thailand (21%) and South Korea (18%) accounted for 61% of the total exports.

Some Chinese companies have considered improving their processing, and investment has taken place with optical sorting. However, resources of high-quality pink and white talc from Liaoning province are diminishing, with Chinese Customs reporting that high-quality white pure talc is now being imported from Pakistan. In 2011, talc imported from Pakistan was 23,009 tonnes at a value of $3.9m with an average price of $170.7/tonne. The total includes 5,000 tonnes to Shantou Hengxin Ceramic Materials Co. Ltd.





New developments

A major region for pure white talc is in the South Asia subcontinent, with deposits in India, Pakistan, Bhutan and Nepal. Meanwhile, Afghanistan is now attracting attention as a source of high-quality white talc for international markets. Official information is difficult to obtain, but clearly a significant amount of high-quality talc is coming from Afghanistan and is then shipped by truck to Karachi for export. A sketch map of the area (see Figure 9) shows the location of the main talc deposits in the north of Pakistan and the adjacent area in Afghanistan near Jalalabad.

Pakistan

Microcrystalline talc associated with magnesite and dolomite is found in the Sherwan area, west of Abbottabad in Pakistan. According to Dr Javaid Akhtar of CapriCorn Minerals, there are four areas mining talc with output of 165,000 tpy, including 20,000 tpy from its Bandi Sadique Deposit.

Talc from north Pakistan and Afghanistan is taken by truck to Karachi where CapriCorn has a stockyard and a 5,000-tpy vertical mill, which was installed in 2012.

CapriCorn also has 5,000-tpy plant in Lahore processing high-quality white pure talc, all of which is exported.





Afghanistan

Talc and magnesite deposits from Nangarhar province in Afghanistan have been known for a long time. Detailed exploration was carried out by Russia in the 1970s, although there has been little further development until recent years. As part of US Aid (US Agency for International Development) programme in Afghanistan, the development of the talc industry has been encouraged and USGS has carried out detailed studies of the geology of the area with respect to magnesite and talc (see p16).

Talc is available in many districts of Nangarhar. This area is very dangerous due to military action, but talc mining is still being developed. Mining, in many cases, is rudimentary, but investment in heavier equipment is being planned as the quality of the talc is very white and in great demand.

To this end, US Aid has helped establish a Talc Association. More than 250 association members assembled in early 2010 to elect a director for the association, with Muhammad Rahim Karimzai, director of Amin Karimzai Ltd (a talc trading company in Nangarhar) taking the position. The association aims to work with government and international organisations looking to develop the business, which is currently controlled by traders. A longer-term programme for investment in local processing facilities now needs to be established.

One of the highest-quality deposits is at Khogyani, where the talc is found in bands within dolomite.

Another deposit is Shinwari, where the talc is associated with magnesite. Brief details of the quality of the Khygyani and Shinwari deposits are shown in Figure 10.

The Khogyani and Shinwari deposits both show low iron and calcium levels, which make them suitable for high-quality polymers and technical ceramics. Khogyani shows >99% and Shinwari >97% talc. LOI of Khogyani is very low at 4.73%, with Shinwari at 5.54% - the slightly higher figure probably reflecting its association with magnesite.

The Khogyani district has two mining areas known as Markikhel and Kudikel, which produce Butter Grade and Grade “A” respectively. Khogyani is a very pure talc, with 31.89% MgO, 63.03% SiO2 and 4.73% LOI. In comparison, pure talc has a composition Mg3Si3O10(OH)2, with 31.70 % MgO, 63.50% SiO2, 4.8O% H2O.

The Shinwari District has two mining areas, called Shinwari and Kot, with both producing Grade “A/B” talc.

Afghanistan talc output is conservatively estimated at 200,000 tpy. However, industry sources indicate that this could well be as much 300,000 tpy or even more. Clearly, more accurate information is needed.








North Korea

North Korea has talc deposits associated with magnesite deposits, in Daehung, Namgye and Riwon. Mondo Minerals developed the Riwon Deposit and some exports were made for processing elsewhere. However, following the acquisition of Mondo Minerals by US company, Advent International, the Riwon operation has now been sold to a group in Hong Kong.

The talc deposit associated with the magnesite deposit at Namgye is being developed by Steinbock Minerals Ltd and Rocky Mountains Industry Development Co. Ltd, based in Shenzhen, China. Namgye Grade talc is shown in Figure 11.

Chlorite is also associated with the magnesite deposit and is mined underground.

Acknowledgements:

Professor Wen Lu (Chengdu, China), Dr Jia Xiu Xhuang (Haichen Minchem, China), Bob Virta and Stephen G Peters (USGS), Stan Coats and Clive Mitchell (BGS), Rocky Wu (Rocky Mountains Industry Development Co. Ltd, China), David Coplet (Steinbock Minerals), Piotr Waga (Steinbock Minerals, Poland), Dr Javaid Akhtar and Waqar Mahmood (CapriCorn Minerals, Pakistan), David Stuart and Peter Taylor (Richard Baker Harrison), Dietmar Alber (Hosokawa Alpine), Murray Lines (Stratum Resources, Australia) and Jens-Michael Bergmann (CommodasUltrasort, Germany) and others.