Lessons from 100 years of mineral data

By IM Staff
Published: Wednesday, 31 December 2014

With the recent publication of data for 2012, the British Geological Survey (BGS) has 100 years of continuous mineral production data - but what do they tell us about worldwide industrial mineral production? Teresa Brown analyses some of these trends and what they say about the industry as a whole.

By Teresa Brown

It is probably no surprise that global production of industrial minerals has increased dramatically between 1913 and 2012, but closer examination of the data reveals the staggering scale of the increase. For example, production of graphite in 1913 was slightly more than 143,000 tonnes, whereas in 2012, global output was more than 2.1m tonnes, an increase of 1,370%. Production of magnesite in 1913 was 354,000 tonnes compared with nearly 24.5m tonnes in 2012; an increase of more than 6,800%. These are equivalent to increases of 14% and 68% per year, respectively, in each of the 100 years. 

More detailed interrogation of the figures shows some interesting patterns. Although it might be considered likely that the biggest percentage increases have occurred in recent times, on a decade by decade scale, this is not true for many industrial minerals. Barite (barytes), fluorspar, lithium and magnesite underwent the largest percentage increases in the period between 1932 and 1942. For kaolin and phosphate rock, the largest percentage increase occurred during the period 1942 to 1952, and for graphite from 1952 to 1962, although for the latter, the period between 1932 and 1942 also experienced high production growth (see Table 1).

To understand why these mineral production increases occurred when they did, it is necessary to consider a number of different factors. 

Increasing global population, improvements in  living standards and the development of new technologies have all had an impact on the consumption of minerals, resulting in the increased production of many commodities. 

Global events also have a noticeable impact. Many of the production increases described above correlate with the Second World War (1939-1945) and this is reflected in production data for many metallic minerals. Spikes in production of certain minerals also occurred around the time of the First World War and during other conflicts. Therefore, it would be straightforward to conclude that one effect of conflict is to increase mineral consumption. 

However, the situation is more complicated than that. The 1940s and 1950s was a period of human history that experienced significant change in the consumption of a wide range of consumer products as the social structure of many countries altered following the Second World War, and this obscures the picture. 

Table 1: Percentage change in world total production per decade for selected industrial minerals

Year the data first available

Percentage change per decade

1913-1922

1922-1932

1932-1942

1942-1952

1952-1962

1962-1972

1972-1982

1982-1992

1992-2002

2002-2012

Barite

1913

133%

-16%

193%

70%

78%

28%

87%

-32%

19%

65%

Fluorspar

1913

24%

-45%

641%

53%

82%

128%

-10%

-8%

10%

52%

Graphite

1913

-26%

-39%

281%

-45%

298%

-29%

44%

82%

62%

30%

Kaolin

1920

31%

-20%

117%

71%

103%

22%

28%

4%

13%

Lithium

1925

621%

240%

382%

6%

-13%

81%

74%

116%

Magnesite

1913

-54%

92%

276%

29%

116%

103%

71%

19%

66%

9%

Phosphate rock

1913

-21%

14%

45%

169%

86%

95%

36%

11%

-1%

55%

 Source: BGS, NERC

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Evolution of the data series

It was the impact of the First World War that created the impetus for the BGS’s predecessors to begin the process of collecting worldwide mineral production and trade data. The collection of mineral statistics for the UK began in the 1850s and although the necessity of extending this to include other countries had previously been identified, attempts to do so prior to 1913 were sporadic and not fully comprehensive. 

Conflict inevitably restricts supplies from opposing countries, and the disruption to transport infrastructure causes problems with deliveries between other nations. As a result, supplies of certain key minerals from overseas, including phosphates, were interrupted during the First World War. 

Thus, in 1918, an 'Imperial War Conference’ recommended the formation of an Imperial Mineral Resources Bureau in the UK, with a mandate to "collect, coordinate and disseminate information in regard to the resources, production, treatment, consumption and requirements of every mineral and metal of economic value" and to "advise on the development of the mineral resources (…) in order that such resources may be made available for the purposes of imperial defence or industry". 

This led directly to the publication in 1921 of the first edition of The Mineral Industry of the British Empire and Foreign Countries, Statistical Summary (Production, Imports and Exports) covering the last pre-war year of 1913 through to post-war 1919 and 1920. This book and its successors have been published more or less annually ever since. The release of the latest volume covering 2008 to 2012 completes the 100th year of the underlying dataset and is therefore known as the 'Centenary Edition’.

There have been many changes since the first edition - not least the dropping of references to the "British Empire" and the somewhat derogatory sounding reference to "foreign" countries, which happened in 1950. Political changes are also reflected in the changing of country names: early editions refer to Persia, Siam and Ceylon, for example - today Iran, Thailand and Sri Lanka, respectively. The dissolution and unification of countries is also reflected by their appearance or disappearance in the volumes. For example, the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and was replaced by 15 'new’ countries, whereas the former states known as the "Federal Republic of Germany" (West) and the "German Democratic Republic" (East) are replaced simply with "Germany", following reunification in 1990. A meander through the series of books quickly becomes a lesson in 20th  century geographical history. 

There has been an increase in the number of commodities covered by the series too, from 39 in the first volume, to 73 commodities in the Centenary Edition. It might be expected that, as mankind has developed the modern technology considered essential today, this has required a wider range of commodities for its manufacture and therefore the increase in the number of minerals in each book would have risen more sharply in recent times. However, as Figure 2 demonstrates, this is not actually the case. 

Conversely, it is surprising how early in the series some commodities first appear, given that they continue to be particularly newsworthy in recent times. Graphite, for example, appears in the very earliest edition, with data from 1913 and data for lithium begins in 1925. Although mankind has developed new uses for these commodities, they also have more traditional end-use sectors that still require considerable quantities of the mineral. For example, lithium demand for batteries has only very recently overtaken the quantity required for ceramics and glass.

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Changes in consumption

The rapidly growing global population has been a significant factor in the increased levels of consumption of all minerals. However, concerns over food security to feed the Earth’s expanding population have driven the production of agricultural minerals, such as phosphate rock and potash, in particular. Production of the former has grown from 7.3m tonnes in 1913 to 215m tonnes in 2012, while the latter has increased from 1.2m tonnes in 1920 to 31.5m tonnes in 2012. 

The continually changing and expanding uses for many industrial minerals have driven very large production volume increases in recent years. For example, fluorspar production in the decade 2002 to 2012 has increased by 52%, its largest decadal increase for 40 years. This is likely to be the result of the development of new chemicals requiring fluorine, and follows many years of relatively flat or declining production of fluorspar, as the world phased out its use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) following evidence of the damage caused to the ozone layer by the chlorine. Global production of lithium in the decade 2001 to 2012 increased by 116%, the largest decadal increase for 50 years and almost certainly the effect of the demand for batteries mentioned earlier.

For other industrial minerals, the end uses have not significantly changed over long periods and consequently, production levels are more closely aligned with demand in their leading end-use sectors. 

For example, barite is predominantly used for drilling muds (approximately 80% of the total production) and therefore a decrease in output of 32% in the period 1982 to 1992 suggests a significant drop in oil and gas exploration drilling during that time period. This observation fits with reality; increasing oil production in the early 1980s caused a significant fall in the oil price, which resulted in a significant drop in drilling activity. This fall in drilling activity is reflected in the number of drilling rigs in operation, which reached a peak in the early 1980s at approximately 6,000, but fell sharply to approximately 2,000 rigs by 1990 (Conerly, 2013).  It is notable that global production of barite increased by 65% in the period 2002 to 2012, partly as a result of the increased activity in the shale gas and oil industry, particularly in the US.

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Diversity or concentration of supply

Another development that can be observed in the statistics relates to changes in the countries supplying minerals to the world market. Fluorspar is a good example, because 50 years ago none of the 23 producing countries individually produced more than 22% of the world’s total, whereas in 2012 China alone accounted for 62% of global output. Of the remaining 21 fluorspar producing countries in 2012, only three produced more than 2% of total world production (see Figure 3a). 

By contrast, in 1962 there were 37 countries producing kaolin, with the US and the UK together accounting for 64% of global production, whereas in 2012 this had expanded to 56 producing countries, with the US producing just 23% of the world’s total. The UK, with 4% of global production in 2012, has been overtaken by kaolin production levels in Germany, China, Brazil, Iran and Turkey (see Figure 3b).

The emergence of China as a leading producer of many industrial minerals, as it is for many metals, is clear in the data. In 1962, China produced 3% of the world’s barite, 9% of the world’s fluorspar and 8% of the world’s graphite, though virtually none of the world’s magnesite. In contrast, in 2012 China produced 45% of the world’s barite, 62% of fluorspar, 86% of graphite and 65% of magnesite. Of the 28 industrial minerals covered by World Mineral Production and listed in Table 2, China was the leading producer of 12 in 2012, whereas in 1962 it was not the leading producer of any. 

It is interesting to consider whether any other nation has previously held such a dominant position in terms of global mineral production as China currently does. In 1962, it was the US that dominated global production of many minerals. BGS data indicates that the US was the leading producer of 17 of the 28 industrial minerals (Table 2), albeit for a few of these minerals the data may not be absolutely complete. 

In 1962 the US accounted for 70% of the world’s production of mica, 31% of feldspar and 41% of phosphate rock. By 2012, production had declined to 14%, 3% and 14%, respectively, for each of these minerals. However, the US remains the leading producer of six of the industrial minerals in 2012 - more than any other country with the exception of China.

Table 2: The leading global producers of selected industrial minerals in 1962 compared with 2012.

Leading producing country

1962

2012

Arsenic (white)

Mexico

China

Asbestos

Canada

Russia

Barytes

US

China

Bentonite

US

US

Borates

US

Turkey

Bromine

US

US

Diatomite

US

US

Feldspar

US

Turkey

Fluorspar

Mexico

China

Fuller’s earth

US

US

Graphite

South Korea

China

Gypsum

US

China

Iodine

Chile

Chile

Kaolin

US

US

Lithium

Rhodesia

Chile

Magnesite

Austria

China

Mica

US

China

Natural sodium carbonate

US

US

Nepheline syenite

Canada

Russia

Perlite

US

China

Phosphate rock

US

China

Potash

Germany, Federal Republic

Canada

Salt

US

China

Sillimanite minerals

South Africa

South Africa

Talc

US

China

Vermiculite

US

South Africa

Wollastonite

US

China

Zirconium minerals

Australia

Australia



Supply risk?

If production concentration is not a new phenomenon, then it raises the question of whether it actually represents a major supply risk. The supply security of minerals is currently very topical and concerns have been raised by governments and industry globally about the availability of raw materials to support the manufacturing sector. 

Production concentration alone is not necessarily the critical factor; it only becomes a problem if there are geopolitical constraints on supply, for example, if a major producer decides to erect trade barriers or is afflicted by poor governance. 

Conversely, if the leading producing country is strongly in favour of international free trade, influenced only by levels of demand, then the risk associated with having a single major producer is lessened. Therefore, it is not just the presence of a dominant producing country that matters, but the policies and actions of that country.

A continuing dataset

Whatever view one takes on mineral supply risk, data such as that presented in World Mineral Production and its predecessors remains fundamental to informing the policy- and decision-making processes on many different levels: from nations, or groups of nations, to investors and private companies. The collection and analysis of data that are as accurate and precise as possible remains as important today as it has always been. 

The BGS is constantly seeking to improve the quality and coverage of the data it publishes in this long-running series and remains open to suggestions and feedback as it moves into the next century of data compilation.

References

British Geological Survey. 2014. World Mineral Production 2008-2012 Centenary Edition. Available as a free download from http://www.bgs.ac.uk/mineralsuk/statistics/worldStatistics.html

Conerly, B. 2013. Oil Price Forecast for 2013-2014: Falling Prices. Forbes. Accessed at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/billconerly/2013/05/01/oil-price-forecast-for-2013-2014-falling-prices/