Feldspar's market through the looking glass

By Antonio Torrisi
Published: Friday, 20 December 2013

Demand for feldspar is recovering from the global economic crisis and opportunities in ceramics and glass markets are expanding

Feldspar is one of the most abundant minerals in the Earth’s crust, forming more than 60% of terrestrial rocks. According to United States Geological Survey (USGS) 2013 estimates, identified and hypothetical resources can amply meet anticipated world demand.

“Resources are large, although not always conveniently accessible,” Arnold Tanner, USGS mineral commodity specialist, said, in the USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries 2013.

Owing to its alumina and alkali content, feldspar is mainly used in the ceramic and glass industries.

These two end-use sectors are linked to the housing and construction market, which have suffered a strong downturn through the recent global economic crisis.

The crisis has consequently affected feldspar’s global demand. However, while remaining sluggish in Europe, demand is showing signs of rebounding elsewhere, especially in Asia and Middle East.

Moreover, opportunities for feldspar’s demand could arise from new markets, such as electrical grade fibreglass (E-glass), which is a growing sector worldwide, in particular in Asia, South East Asia and the US.

Market research and consultancy group, Global Industry Analysts Inc. (GIA), suggested that, after suffering a global economic meltdown in 2008 and in 2009, the feldspar market showed signs of recovery in 2010 and 2011.

A slow rebound in feldspar demand from the main European consumers, including Italy, France and Spain, is also expected to contribute to future growth.



SUPPLY SECURITY

According to the British Geological Survey (BGS), Europe as a whole produces the most feldspar, accounting for 57.3% of the world’s production.

Italy

Italy is the world’s largest producer of feldspar according to the USGS and the BGS.

Italy’s output has been stable at 4.7m tonnes during the last four years, according to the USGS. The country is also a major consumer of feldspar, in particular within the ceramic tile and sanitaryware sectors.

It is the largest importer in Europe, with about 50% of total imports (see figure 1). After a fall in feldspar imports from 2m tonnes in 2008 to 1.5m tonnes in 2009, the market saw a rebound in 2011 with imports up to 1.9m tonnes.

“At present we are supplying the ceramics sector, both frits and enamel, and sanitaryware producers,” Sabrina Bozzola, human resources director at Minerali Industriali, Italy’s largest producer, told IM.

Bozzola explained that the current production capacity at Suez Mineral’s plant is 45,000 tpa, but it will reach 100,000 tpa by June 2014.



Turkey

Turkey is the second largest producer in the world, with production amounting to about 4.4m tonnes in 2011.

Estimates from Roskill Information Services suggest that production hit 7.5m tonnes in 2012.

Turkey is one of the largest exporters of feldspar. In 2011 it exported 3.5m tonnes of feldspar to mainly European markets.

“Italy, Spain, Russian and Poland were the most important markets for Turkish feldspar,” the Turkish Minister of Economy, Zafer Caglayan, said in the Industry Mining Report 2013.

He added that total feldspar reserves in Turkey could amount to 239m tonnes.

Turkey also exports feldspar to the Middle East with exports of 115,000 tonnes to United Arab Emirates (UAE), 80,000 tonnes to Saudi Arabia and 38,000 tonnes to Syria in 2012, according to Roskill.

France

France’s feldspar production amounted to 650,000 tonnes in 2012, according to USGS estimates, which was flat compared to 2011.

The main feldspar producer is Imerys. In France, Imery’s feldspar production sites are Feldspaths de Montebras, Feldspaths du Morvan, and Feldspaths du Sud (Site de Lansac).

Imerys assets in North America are now part of The Quartz Corp. following a joint venture with Norway-based Norsk Mineral in 2011.



Spain

Feldspar production in Spain amounted to 600,000 tonnes in 2012, according to the USGS, up 1.6% compared with 2011.

According to the Spanish Institute of Geology and Mines (IGME), the majority of feldspar imports come from Turkey (69%), Italy (25.6%), France (2.9%) and Germany (1.3%).

Exports in 2011 amounted to almost 72,000 tonnes, and the major destinations were Brazil (29.2%), Portugal (13.6%) and Turkey (13%).

IGME said that feldspar demand in Spain increased in 2011 and it is still increasing, owing to demand from the ceramics market.

“Expectations [for volumes and prices] in the next couple of years are steady or maybe slightly improving,” Pascual Castejon, general manager of the Spanish potassic feldspar producer Euroarce, told IM.

Euroarce produces about 175,000 tonnes of feldspar and supplies frits, glazes, sanitaryware, tableware and glass to Spain as well as Italy, North Africa and Turkey.

Salvador Torras, president of Spain-based feldspar producer Minerals I Derivats, told IM that feldspar demand in Spain had suffered a free-fall decrease, but that it is presently stable and even showing some signs of recovery.

“Production versus other years is recovering, thanks to export,” he said.

Minerals I Derivats produces mixed sodic-potassic feldspar for the ceramic industry, with an annual production capacity of 3,000 tpa for the ceramic domestic industry and exports to Europe and South America.

IGME estimates national reserves to be about 40m tonnes, of which 37.5m tonnes are potassic feldspar and 2.5m tonnes are sodic feldspar.

Poland and the Czech Republic are the other large feldspar producers in Europe, with production of 450m tonnes and 420m tonnes in 2012, respectively.

Asia

China is the world’s third-largest feldspar producer, with production amounting to 2.2m in 2012, according to the USGS.

According to market consultancy company Merchant Consulting Ltd, China is also a major feldspar exporter in the world, with exports amounting to about 844,000 tonnes in 2011. However, imports are low, at 65,000 tonnes in 2011.

China supplies feldspar to its domestic ceramics market, which is one of the largest in the world, and it exports feldspar to other countries in Asia and South East Asia, such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Data from the Department of Primary Industry and Mines (DPI&M) of Thailand indicate feldspar production amounting to over 1m tonnes, of which about 902,000 tonnes sodic feldspar and about 140,000 tonnes potassic feldspar, in 2011.

According to DPI&M feldspar production increased by 5.8%, up to 1.1m tonnes, in 2012. However, while sodic production increased by 21% year-on-year (y-o-y), potassic production plunged by 96%. In September 2013, Thailand recorded a total production of over 1m tonnes of feldspar, of which only 19,200 tonnes are potassic feldspar, down by 16% y-o-y.

Thailand is also a main exporter of feldspar in the Asia region, supplying Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, India and the Middle East.

India is the third-largest feldspar producer in Asia. The Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM) estimates total production of 1.3m tonnes in 2013. In 2012 demand was estimated to be 452,100 tonnes.

Feldspar production is mainly located in the state of Rajasthan, with 63% of the total production, followed by Andhra Pradesh with 30%.

North America

The US is another major producer of feldspar worldwide, with USGS estimated production amounting to 630,000 tonnes in 2012, down by 3% y-o-y, but up by 9.5% compared with 2010.

Production in the US was at 650,000 tonnes in 2013. In 2012 demand was at 610,000 tonnes.

The main feldspar producer in the US, The Quartz Corp firm, owns feldspar reserves in North Carolina. Other producers are Pacer Minerals and Unimin Corp.

Canadian junior mining company, I-Minerals, owns feldspar and feldspatic sand reserves in Idaho. It hopes to produce 34,000 tpa by 2020.

South America

Argentina and Brazil are the largest feldspar producers in South America, with production in 2012 amounting to 200,000 tonnes and 115,000 tonnes, respectively, according to the USGS.

The National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM) estimates total feldspar resources in Brazil at 316.6m tonnes.

MARKET DEMAND

In ceramics and in glass making, feldspar is used as fluxing agent to reduce the melting temperature of quartz and clays and to control the viscosity of glass.

The main fluxing agents are the potassium oxide (K2O) and sodium oxide (Na2O), with sodic feldspar having a stronger fluxing action than potassic feldspar.

In the ceramic tiles sector, feldspar is the main component of the body composition, and it is used to lower the temperature at which the ceramic body becomes glassy.

Its content varies between 10% and 55% in tiles and between 50% and 60% in stoneware (gres porcellanato).

Its content varies between 30% and 50%, 25% and 35% in sanitaryware and 15% and 30% in whiteware and chemical porcelain.

Other ceramic products containing feldspar are enamels, frits and glazes. In glazes, potassic feldspar is preferred to sodic as it dissolves silica more readily and forms a more durable product.

In glass making, feldspar is also used as stabiliser, owing to its alumina content, which increases hardness, durability and resistance to chemical corrosion. It is used both in the production of flat and container glass.

Feldspar also finds uses in fillers for plastics, paints and rubber, owing to its good dispersability, chemical inertness, stable pH and high resistance to abrasion.

The USGS estimates that approximately 70% of feldspar production is used in the glass market and the remaining 30% in pottery and other uses.

According to GIA, ceramics “represent the largest and fastest growing end-use segment”, with the tile sector offering opportunities for feldspar demand, especially in China, South East Asia, Spain, and Latin America.

Ceramics

In Poland, ceramics has been the driving sector for feldspar demand. According to the Mineral and Energy Economy Research Institute of the Polish Academy of Science, a surge in stoneware production between 2002 and 2007 pushed feldspar demand up to 900,000 tonnes, with the ceramic tiles sector representing 80% of feldspar demand.

A 2013 study from the Export-Import (EXIM) Bank of India put the global ceramic industry at a value of $43.8bn in 2011.

Structural ceramics (tiles) was the largest sector in terms of exports (50%) and imports (47.6%), followed by industrial ceramics, tableware, sanitaryware and ornamentalware.

According to the EXIM Bank of India, the production of tiles worldwide amounted to 10.5bn m2 in 2011, of which 72bn m2 from Asia, 1.2bn m2 from EU - including 27 countries - and 1bn m2 from Central and South America.

China, which was the main manufacturer of ceramic tiles, accounted for 46% of global production. According to Roskill, the total production in the Chinese ceramic tiles industry amounted to 9bn m2 tiles in 2011, and is expected to grow to 9.5bn m2 in 2015.

However, while Asia and Central-South America recorded positive trends, with growth of 13.3% and 10.8%, respectively, y-o-y, the EU’s trend was negative, down by 2.1% y-o-y.

The downturn in the EU and US ceramic sectors in 2009 was caused by the global economic crisis and production is currently fluctuating “because of the slow rebound of the housing market from the economic recession, some plant closures and increased imports,” Tanner explained.

Italy, one of the major producers of tiles together with Spain and Turkey, has seen a slowdown in the tiles industry during the last years.

Bozzola told IM that demand is fluctuating, with expected production in 2013 amounting to about 350m m2, compared with about 370m m2 in 2012.

“There is a slight growth in the tiles sector in Spain, with a slight increase in the whiteware, up by 5%,” Bozzola told IM.

Thailand is also an important market for the tiles industry. The Siam Cement Company (SCG) is the second-largest ceramic producer after Abu Dhabi-based RAK Ceramics.

India is also a fast-growing market in the tiles sector and is the world’s third-largest manufacturer and consumer. Production is expected to grow by 7% each year to 2015.

According to the EXIM Bank of India, there is a high potential of growth for the industry, looking at the current per capita consumption (PCC) of 0.5 m2, compared with 2 m2 PCC, in countries like China, Brazil and Malaysia.

The Middle East region also represents opportunities for growth of the tiles sector.

Iran’s production saw a steady positive trend which persisted in 2012, with a total volume of 500m m2 of tiles and an increase of 5.3% y-o-y, according to Ceramic World Review.

Projections from the EXIM Bank of India estimate a global production of 13.1bn m2 in 2013, which will rise to 16.4bn m2 in 2015, and 18.3bn m2 in 2016.

Growth opportunities are also present within the sanitaryware sector, which saw a global production worldwide of 400m pieces in 2012, according to Roskill estimates.

China remained the world’s largest producer, accounting for 44% of the global production, followed by Europe (14%), South East Asia (12%), the Middle East (10%), North America (10%) and South America (8%).

The US market is a major market of sanitaryware worldwide, accounting for 18.4% of global imports according to the EXIM Bank of India.

The global consultancy group, Charles River Associates (CRA), suggests that sanitaryware was one of the largest end-use sectors for potassic feldspar in the US in 2012, with 107m tonnes of potassic feldspar, followed by the tiles, fillers and glazes sectors, which both used 51m tonnes of potassic feldspar.

However, CRA projections for the year 2020 suggest a rise in the consumption of potassic feldspar within the tiles, fillers and glazes sectors, with quantities up to 70m tonnes and 57m tonnes respectively. The sanitaryware sector is expected to increase potassic feldspar consumption just over 107m tonnes (see figure 2).

Glass

Glass is another important end-market of sodic and potassic feldspar. In fact, in the US, feldspar demand has been gradually shifting from the ceramic to the glass market during 2012 and 2013.

World glass production has steadily increased from 112m tonnes in 2007 to 122m tonnes in 2012, with an annual growth varying between 2% and 4%, according to a 2013 report by IS investment bank, Turkey.

According to the USGS, demand in the US market, which accounts for the 29% of global demand, slightly improved in 2012, particularly for automotive glass, but flat glass demand for housing remained sluggish.

Flat glass demand and production shrank in the EU countries, following the global economic crisis.

Bozzola told IM that several plants suspended operations in many countries, including Italy, the UK, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

Data from the National Association of Glass Industries (Assovetro) showed that the Italian container glass market shrank by 4.8% y-o-y in 2012.

“It is possible to expect a further slight downturn in 2013, due to a slight fall in food consumption” she told IM.

However, Turkish IS investment bank's projections for flat glass demand expect growth of 4% in the next few years. China is the country with the largest demand, accounting for 50% of the global demand, followed by Europe (16%), North America (8%) and South East Asia (7%).

According to the USGS, most feldspar is consumed by the container glass sector. The European Container Glass Federation (Feve) estimated global sales volume about 60m tonnes.

The container glass industry is the largest sector of the glass market, accounting for 45% of total glass production, followed by flat glass (37%) and value-added products, such as glassware and fibreglass, which accounted for the 3% and 4%, respectively.

GIA indicates growth to 13.8m tonnes by 2017.

However, feldspar and nepheline syenite future demand might be lessened by the use of cullets (recycled glass) in container glass.

According to GIA, cullets can substitute feldspar in the glass making sector as they can reduce melting points by up to 10oC. The recycling is only limited to green cullets, which are used in the container glass sector.

The use of alternative packaging such as aluminium, plastic and paper could also reduce consumption growth in the container glass market.

Commenting on glass recycling, Bozzola explained to IM that cullets have determined a strong downturn in the demand for raw material for glass in recent years, particularly for coloured glass.

“The percentage of cullets used in the production of green glass amounts to 75%,” she said.

Rio Pereira, from the DNPM in Brazil, told IM that consumption of feldspar in the glass industry has decreased due to the use of substitute products such as alumina and increased recycling.

However, the Asian region still offers growth opportunities in the container glass sector, with India’s alcoholic beverage industry expected to grow in double-digit rates, according to Hindusthan National Glass & Industries Ltd., which is the largest container glass provider in the country.

New markets and products

The USGS suggests that new market opportunities for feldspar could come from the fibreglass sector and solar cells, at least within the US market. Fibreglass consumption for thermal insulation is expected to expand through 2013 and production of flat glass in the solar cells is expected to increase.

Although potassic and sodic feldspar could not find applications in the fibreglass market, this represents an opportunity for calcium feldspar.

Owing to its light weight, high strength and being less brittle and expensive than carbon fibre, E-glass could be a valuable metal substitute in boats, tanks, vessels, sport cars, wind turbines and printed circuits.

The E-glass market showed a steady growth in production during the last ten years, with average annual growth of 7.2% and an estimated global production of about 5.3m tonnes. China (41.5%), Europe (16%) and North America (14.9%) are the world’s largest producers.

According to James Tuer, president of junior mining company Hudson Resources, calcium feldspar could replace kaolin in the production of E-glass.

“The rock, which contains up to 32% of Al2O3 and 16% CaO, can be used as a replacement to kaolin in providing alumina for E-glass,” Tuer told IM.

Moreover, calcium feldspar can provide a portion of the required calcium content in fibreglass, which is currently supplied by quicklime, Tuer explained.

“When you look at E-glass standards, lithium, potassium, and sodium content, taken together, cannot be higher than 1-2% in the final product,” Tuer explained to IM.

“This is why the low sodium content of our anorthosite works as a fibreglass feedstock where others won't,” he added.

According to Tuer, two other potential markets for calcium feldspar are the production of Al2O3 and the fillers market.

Tuer said that the global fillers market is expected to grow from $20bn to $22.5bn by 2018.

PRICE TRENDS

According to the USGS, the feldspar price in the US was about $62/tonne between 2008 and 2012, with a spike up to $65/tonne in 2009. The price was estimated as average value from marketable production.

CRA estimates indicate average export prices for sodic and potassic feldspar to be between $133/tonne and $178/tonne in the period from 2008 to 2011, rising up to $336/tonne in 2012.

According to the CRA, average import prices decreased from $358/tonne in 2008 to $279/tonne in 2010, and rose again up to $331/tonne in 2011. Average import price was $236/tonne in 2012.

Bozzola, told IM that potassic feldspar is notoriously more expensive than sodic feldspar.

CRA said that prices in the US in 2012 varied between $180-220/tonne for potassic feldspar (170 and 200 mesh) used in the sanitaryware sector; $175-240/tonne for potassic feldspar (30, 100 and 200 mesh) used in tiles; and $180-210/tonne for potassic feldspar (200 and 325 mesh) used in fillers and glazes.

In Spain, feldspar average prices fell from about €65.2/tonne ($90/tonne*) in 2008 to €36/tonne ($49.70/tonne) in 2012. Estimates were calculated as a ratio of the total value and the total production of feldspar, which were obtained from IGME data.

In India, data from the IBM show average feldspar prices increasing from Indian rupee (Rs) 185.2/tonne ($2.90/tonne*) in 2009 to Rs 313.6/tonne ($5/tonne) in 2012. In April 2013, the average price amounted to Rs 288/tonne ($4.60/tonne).

Export prices increased from Rs 2737.5/tonne ($43.80/tonne) in 2009 to Rs 3850/tonne ($61.60/tonne) in 2012.

Import prices decreased from Rs 13437.5/tonne ($215/tonne) in 2009 to Rs 4056.2 ($64.90/tonne) in 2012. Prices were calculated as a ratio between the total value and the total quantity of feldspar for the exports and imports, respectively. Data were obtained from the IBM.

Calculations on data from the DPI&M indicate a price for potassic feldspar of Thailand Baht (B) 1698/tonne ($52.60/tonne) and B700/tonne ($21.70/tonne) for sodic feldspar in 2013. The prices for potassic and sodic feldspar have remained constant in the last four years, with price for potassic feldspar down by 10.6% compared with 2008.

According to 2011 estimates from the Spanish IGME, prices in Turkey amounted to $22-23/tonnes FOB for sodic feldspar (20 mesh) and $70/tonne FOB for sodic feldspar (glass grade, 20 mesh).

Finally, the average price for feldspar in Brazil was about Brazilian Real (R$) 103/tonne ($44.30/tonne) in 2011, but the average export price amounted to $295/tonne, according to the DNPM.

MARKET OUTLOOK

There is a general optimism about the rebound of feldspar demand in the near future.

GIA expects growth in feldspar future demand to be driven by countries in the Asia-Pacific area, as well as the Middle East and Latin America, which generate more than 33% of the revenues all together.

However, countries such as Italy and Spain, which are among the world’s largest producers of feldspar and ceramic tiles, will still play an important part in the future demand.

“Increased production of ceramics, particularly in China and in some traditional producers such as Italy and Spain, is currently presenting large opportunities of growth,” Susan Sutton, editor-in-chief of the Ceramic Industry journal, said.

Salvador Torras, president of Spain’s Minerals I Derivats, told IM that “global demand in ceramics has not really decreased in these years, but moved from one region to another.”

Within the EU countries, feldspar demand is expected to grow in Spain, owing to a slight increase in production of ceramic tiles.

“In the EU, there is an expected growth in sodic feldspar demand, while demand for potassic feldspar is expected to be stable,” Bozzola told IM.

Bozzola also explained that feldspar demand might suffer a slight downturn in the production of green tiles, due to the use of glass as substitute of feldspar in mixtures.

Commenting on the feldspar demand within the glass industry, Bozzola said it is difficult to estimate the impact of glass market fluctuations on feldspar demand, at least in Italy, as the use of feldspar depends on technical choices in production, which might not be affected by market trends.

Rui Pereira from the DNPM told IM that feldspar could also be replaced in several of its applications by agalmatolite, feldspar sand, clay, blast furnace slag, phyllite, nepheline syenite, talc and pyrophyllite.

However, the market consulting company Merchant Consulting Ltd forecasts world feldspar production to grow continuously in the years ahead, hitting 25.6m tonnes in 2016.

*Conversions made December 2013