Imerys: Europe still key for industrial minerals

By Myles McCormick
Published: Friday, 27 November 2015

The world's leading industrial mineral company told delegates at the inaugural MINEX European Mining and Exploration Forum that the continent still has an important role to play in the minerals market.

Europe remains an economically viable production and consumption base for industrial minerals, delegates at the MINEX European Mining and Exploration Forum heard.

Speaking at the conference, Owen Herod, corporate geology manager at global industrial minerals giant, Imerys SA, emphasised the role of industrial minerals in the wider industry as the struggling mining sector seeks to pick itself up off the ground in Europe. 

"We continue to see Europe as not only an important market, but also an important source for minerals," he said.

Acknowledging that efforts to reboot the mining sector tends to focus "very much on metals", he outlined the importance of the industrial minerals in European mining.

Industrial minerals account for 700 mines, 750 processing plants and the direct employment of 42,500 people in Europe, Herod said.

The continent also accounts for significant proportions of the global production of major industrial minerals, including 60.1% of worldwide feldspar output, 36.1% of kaolin production, 22.5% of salts and 18.7% of bentonite output.

Yet, he said, the crucial positions industrial minerals occupy in day-to-day activities are often overlooked.

Herod used the example of a smartphone to illustrate this point. A smartphone screen is made using high precision abrasives, while the cover is composed of carbonates, mica, talc and carbon black. The device’s steel reinforcement requires refractory minerals to produce, the microchip is the product of silicium, refractories and high purity quartz and its insulating foils are made of graphite. And, finally, a smartphone’s lithium-ion battery contains both graphite and lithium.

"Per phone, there might not be a huge quantity of minerals used," Herod said. "But it adds up" – particularly as such devices become more and more popular in Europe and across the world.

Herod drew particular attention to Imerys’ kaolin production at St Austell in Cornwall, UK, a 150-year-old mine which produces 800-900,000 tpa kaolin, and the company’s newly-acquired bentonite deposit on the Greek island of Milos, which has an output of 1m tpa bentonite.

Imerys produces more than 30 industrial minerals globally and 45% of this production is Europe-based, with 24% in North America, 26% in emerging markets and 5% in Japan and Australia.

The slump in raw materials demand in recent years has hit sales across the industry, notably in ceramic proppants – bauxite and kaolin products used in fracking and which therefore rely heavily on the embattled oilfield industry. Imerys has recently had to rely on external expansion, via acquisitions, to deliver revenue growth as like for like sales come under pressure.

Speaking to IM about the company’s policy of expansion through acquisitions, Herod said: "You look back at history and Imerys has done it a number of times".

"We are always on the lookout for new opportunities to see where we can grow. The message has always been: 'When the opportunity is right…’" he added.

"We are always actively on the lookout, so I can’t see that not continuing."

*Conversion made November 2015