Fluorspar: Year in Review 2015

By IM Staff
Published: Monday, 21 December 2015

A roundup of the year's main events in the global fluorspar industry.

The global fluorspar industry has been in the doldrums for around three years, as declining prices and falling demand for fluorochemicals used in refrigerants and steel manufacturing has led to significant price erosion. 

Regional deterioration in demand has forced the closure of some projects, notably in Africa, while some fluorspar exploration companies have moved away from the sector.

Changing environmental regulations are likely to put pressure on producers of fluorochemicals and while overall demand for fluorspar will probably be held up by its inclusion in reformulated, more environmentally alternative products, the transition period is expected to be an uncertain time for many.

SUPPLY SECURITY

The year started with what appeared to be a liberalisation of fluorspar supply, as China removed export limits on fluorspar along with 47 other minerals in January as part of the Ministry of Commerce’s (MOFCOM) statement on quota licencing, bidding and licence management. The move followed a March 2014 ruling by the World Trade Organization (WTO) that Chinese quotas contravened international trade rules. In the same month, in Germany, reports that locally-based metallurgy company Nickelhuette was escalating output at its new site in the Ore Mountains indicated that German fluorspar production would reach over 25,000 tonnes in 2015, 80% of which would be acid-grade material (acidspar), boosting the country’s self-sufficiency.

Rising European production was expected to compensate for the closure of Solvay SA’s Okorusu fluorspar mine in Namibia at the end of 2014, although in the event, low-cost material sourced from Asian suppliers was widely available in the market.

In May, Kenya Fluorspar Co. Ltd wrangled with the Kenyan government over allegations of unpaid taxes. The company, which has a production capacity of 100,000-120,000 tpa fluorspar, sold mainly into the fluorochemicals market, nevertheless maintained operations over the course of the year.

In June UK-listed fluorspar junior Tertiary Minerals doubled the indicated and inferred mineral resource estimate for its MB project in Nevada to 86.4m tonnes, grading at 10.7% CaF2. The company commenced drilling at the site in mid-December.

IM held its annual fluorspar conference in Marrakech, Morocco, in October, where delegates discussed falling Chinese acidspar exports and increased domestic consumption – a situation that looks likely to erode the country’s position as the dominant global supplier. This trend was seized on as an opportunity by emerging players from Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar.

The industry has recently seen some strong new players entering the market, with Vietnam-based Masan Resources emerging as a major supplier.

Supply from Southeast Asia is expected to make up, to some extent, for the closure of the Witkop and Buffalo fluorspar mines in South Africa, which face being shut down owing to poor demand and relatively high cost. 

MARKET DEMAND

While many were optimistic of a minor uptick in consumption from industrial sectors – particularly the aluminium fluoride (AlF3) market – towards the end of 2014, 2015 began with few signs of a rebound in demand.

Figures for 2014 released towards the end of Q1 2015 indicated a resurgence in US metallurgical-grade fluorspar (metspar) consumption. Metspar export volumes from Mexico increased by 21% year-over-year (y-o-y) to 350,472 tonnes in 2014, largely benefitting from the recovering steel market in the US and boosting sales for locally-based market leader, Mexichem SA de CV. 

Elsewhere, rising cement demand in Asia was also expected to support the metspar market. China’s fluorspar export figures for 2014, meanwhile, showed positive growth in downstream markets with exports for both hydrofluoric acid (HF) and AlF3 rising, while acidspar figures registered drop.

The most significant question mark hanging over the fluorspar industry in 2015 was probably the ambiguity over the phasing out of hydrofluorocabons (HFCs) in refrigeration and other industries, with the aim of replacing them with less environmentally damaging hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs). In mid-2015, the US government announced private sector commitments to cut the use of HFCs and began pushing other nations such as India to follow suit. However, the approaches of Article 5 (developing) and Non-Article 5 (developed) countries (as defined by the Montreal Protocol) towards phasing out HFCs differ in phase out targets and timelines, meaning it is unclear at what rate the chemicals will be abandoned.

In December, governments and industries met in Paris at the COP (Conference of Parties) 21 where the UN’s Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) agreed an action plan to reduce global emissions of short-lived pollutants, including HFCs. This incorporated a pledge under the Global Refrigerant Management Initiative to reduce HFCs from refrigerant servicing by 30-50% within 10 years.

Consumption rates of HF acid, the principal feedstock for fluorochemicals and fluoropolymers, stand to be most affected by this initiative in the short term.

In terms of consumption, Germany remains one of the largest global markets for fluorspar behind China and the US, despite German fluorspar consumption falling to around 200,000 tpa from a previous peak of more than 300,000 tpa. In Asia, meanwhile, rising affluence has seen an increase in demand for refrigerating products and air conditioning – a trend that is expected to continue in the medium term.

2015 also saw India, a major importer of fluorspar, begin to switch its sourcing preferences from China to Southeast Asian suppliers like Vietnam.

PRICE TRENDS 

Fluorspar prices resisted fresh price pressures at the beginning of the year, however excess supplies were already threatening to force decreases as 2015 wore on. In the acidspar market, inventories which had accumulated over the previous two years were compounded by weak demand growth.

Prices for acidspar fell in consecutive months throughout much of the year, while metspar prices fell at a more gradual rate.

Attendees at the Marrakech conference told IM that it is hard for operations with high production and/or logistics costs to survive in the current climate, especially when better quality acidspar material is available at market-bottom prices of $230-$250/tonne.

MARKET OUTLOOK

The future looks challenging for the fluorspar market, with the balance tilting firmly in favour of low-cost Asian suppliers, whose competitive prices combined with the discounted freight rates currently on offer could enable them to penetrate wider geographies and threaten more expensive operations in Africa, Europe and the Americas.

India is likely to register an average increase of 6% per annum in its consumption of R22 – an important fluorspar-based refrigerant for the air conditioning market – from 2016. However, India’s overall fluorspar consumption could decline by 20% next year, mainly because of reduced demand from the steel industry.

China continues to develop its downstream fluorochemicals business, taking some supply out of the global market. This could simply result in local overcapacity moving downstream and may do little to help demand.