Rio Tinto: Global outlook for borates

By IM Staff
Published: Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Global borate consumption looks set to rise, based on positive trends in urbanisation, energy and worldwide food demand, according to leading producer Rio Tinto Minerals. Here, the company gives its outlook on the industry and discusses its reasons for confidence in consumption growth.

Rio Tinto Minerals (RTM), also known in its borates capacity as US Borax Inc., has a global footprint with a tier one borate mine at Boron, California, US.  The mine has expansion optionality and RTM also manages identified additional resources in the state, together with a further project in Serbia.  

Rt1  

Close up of Jadarite ore, a source of lithium and 
borates, from Rio Tinto Minerals’ exploration project 
in Serbia (source: Rio Tinto Minerals).

Denver, US-headquartered RTM has 140 years of experience in finding, mining, refining, supplying and marketing borate products. Currently, RTM supplies over 30 products to customers in over 100 countries, roughly equating to a 30% share of global sales of refined products. The company has produced under the 20 Mule Team Borax brand for more than 100 years. 

RTM operates processing plants and shipping facilities in the US, China, Malaysia, France, Spain and the Netherlands, and has a global network of warehouses and stock points to service its worldwide supply obligations, managed locally by regional headquarters in Spain and Singapore.  

The company’s estimate of its available resources is considered to be sufficient to operate the business at increasing levels of production for over 40 years. Detailed studies are currently underway on the Jadarite deposit in Serbia, which is prospective for lithium as well as borates.

RTM continues to invest strongly in its borate business, and in 2014 the company commissioned a new processing facility at Boron in California, called the Modified Direct Dissolving of Kernite (MMDK) plant, with the purpose of better utilising the range of ore types at the deposit and extending the mine life. Now fully operational, MMDK is also capable of processing a wider variety of ore types.  

Demand for borates over time is expected to remain strong and is forecast to increase during the latter stages of global economic development, beginning in the second half of the present decade (see Figure 1).  As economies develop and per capita gross domestic product (GDP) increases, there will be more demand for products containing boron.

Figure 1: Minerals and metals demand vs global GDP

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Source: Rio Tinto Minerals

Borates demand

The fundamental drivers of the global borate industry are underpinned by a growing global economy.  China is the biggest consumer of borates and demand is growing at a rate faster than the overall borate industry, albeit close to its own GDP growth rate, which is currently around 7%. The US is the second largest borate-consuming country; demand there is forecast to grow at a rate higher than GDP, primarily driven by continued recovery in the housing market.

RTM estimates that over time, significant demand growth will come from three strategic market pillars: urbanisation, energy and global food supply. 

As urbanisation takes place, the size of the middle class also tends to grow, and as populations age, demand builds for fundamental items used in buildings such as glazed ceramics, liquid crystal display (LCD) televisions and electronic devices, appliances that contain borosilicate glass (BSG) and textile fiberglass (TFG). Urbanisation

China is a prime example of where structural changes in the economy are having far-reaching effects on the demand for raw materials, including borates. Though investment is likely to remain a primary driver of growth in the country, its influence will diminish as consumption plays a progressively more important role. 

Demand by end use: Refined borates

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Source: Rio Tinto Minerals

Energy

Under the energy pillar, there is growing demand for borates used in energy-saving applications, including insulation for homes and buildings, as well as in energy creation from oil extraction to wind power.  

In North America, the recovery in US house building, a reduction in the unemployment rate and an increase in consumer spending are boosting demand for borates. This is expected to continue well beyond 2015. 

In addition, there is growing potential for increased demand for fibre glass to be used as building insulation material in China, as the country further encourages green building practices for energy saving purposes.

Global food supply

The global food supply market pillar refers to agriculture and the need to increase crop yields and quality through better soil and plant nutrition, against a backdrop of a reduction in arable land and a growing global population.  

Significant boron deficiencies in soils are acknowledged globally, and the mineral is increasingly being recognised as a critical element for improving crop yields and product quality. India is one of a large number of countries where the use of micronutrients is being supported by government projects and subsidies to increase crop productivity. 

RTM estimates global demand for borates will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of almost 5% over the next five-year period. Demand for the major refined products, sodium pentaborate (5mol) and boric acid (BA), will be driven primarily by the growth for BSG, frits for ceramic glazes, insulation and agriculture. 

Technology to drive consumption

Other notable borate end-uses include TFG and LCD. Rapid and accelerating LCD innovation will likely create new demand and shortened replacement cycles for a wide range of glass products and devices.

Figure 3: Global 5mol demand by end use (2014)

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Source: Industry and Rio Tinto Minerals estimates

The top four end uses for sodium pentaborate products by volume and growth potential are BSG, insulation, chemicals (including feedstock for other chemical production) and agriculture.  These four groupings account for 80% of global sodium pentaborate demand.  

Boric acid demand is more diversified in nature; the top three end uses account for about 50% of the total. Similar to sodium pentaborate, BSG is a key end use, with frit and thin film transistor (TFT)/LCD for televisions and electronics featuring among the other primary end uses.

RTM considers information available in trade statistics, suppliers’ published production capacities and publicly announced expansion details to generate a global view of supply for both sodium pentaborate and boric acid.

The company estimates that, over the period from 2014 to 2019, the supply of the major refined products will increase by approximately 10%, or 300,000 tonnes, when converted into boric oxide equivalent units. The majority of this supply increase is for sodium pentaborate. 

The outlook for demand for sodium pentaborate and its derivatives is good over the next five years and the capacity increases that are being brought online will be needed to meet the demand profile.

RTM forecasts that the increased supply from 2014 to 2019 will be absorbed over this time period, particularly in the US housing industry and in other sectors such as China’s BSG industry.  

It expects that boric acid supply will increase marginally with anticipated debottlenecking of current processes and a relatively small supply addition in South America. Existing boric acid capacity is likely to be adequate to meet the demand projections through 2019, as utilisation rates appear to have room to increase.

Over time, RTM has continued to make investments in research and development (R&D) to drive innovation. The company has built and operates R&D Technology Centres in the US and more recently in China. These centres play an important role in supporting existing customers and developing current markets, new products and new end uses.  

Good product stewardship across the borate industry is a key priority and is required to ensure borate products can continue to be used and sold throughout global markets. RTM’s product stewardship experts have been called on by regulatory authorities to provide expert opinion and testimony on borate science and toxicology and RTM currently holds the presidency of the world’s only borate industry association, based in Europe. 

Figure 4: Global BA demand by end use (2014)

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Source: Industry and Rio Tinto Minerals estimates 

Besides supporting industry, RTM actively works with regulatory authorities globally to support the development of sound policies that impact the industry, and to promote and protect borate markets and products. It also has product stewardship representatives located in strategic markets to work with customers and authorities.

It is RTM’s belief that three strategic market pillars of urbanisation, energy and global food supply needs, discussed above, will continue to fuel the need for borates for the foreseeable future.  

Although China’s GDP growth is slowing, Chinese demand for borates remains robust. The US is back on the path of growth and Europe is stabilising – the latest developments in the Greek debt crisis notwithstanding – meaning that the trends outlined will have a solid economic base to develop from.

*Forward-Looking Statements: This paper includes forward-looking statements. Such forward-looking statements involve known and unknown risks, uncertainties and other factors which may cause the actual results, performance or achievements of Rio Tinto, or industry results, to be materially different from any future results, performance or achievements expressed or implied by such forward-looking statements. Nothing in this paper should be interpreted to mean that future earnings per share of Rio Tinto Plc or Rio Tinto Ltd will necessarily match or exceed its historical published earnings per share.

Boron in wind turbines

Boron is used to make neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) magnets, a type of high-strength permanent magnet used in modern wind turbines.

The three metals are combined to form the alloy Nd2Fe14B, which has a tetragonal crystalline structure. 

By integrating this magnetic material into the turbine’s generator system (in so-called permanent magnet generator, or PMG, systems), the turbine is given much greater overall mechanical reliability and generation efficiencies compared to the old gearbox designs which provided the mechanics for earlier wind turbine models. This in turn leads to reduce maintenance costs and downtime. 

A generator moves magnetic fields past wire coils or vice versa, which makes electrons move in the wire. The goal is to move lots of magnetism past lots of wire to move lots of electrons. 

PM alternators can be configured in a variety of ways, with coils spinning around magnets, magnets spinning around coils (most common), or in "axial" designs, where the magnets and coils face each other in a disk-like arrangement and the magnets typically spin.

The use of NdFeb magnets in wind turbines has increased significantly since the late 2000s and this trend looks likely to continue as global climate change targets put more pressure on governments to source an increasing proportion of their national energy consumption from renewables.

Sources: Borates Bulletin, Terra Magnetica, Home Power