Industrial mineral markets will embark on a nervous new year
in January, after many industry observers gave up calling
market bottoms following price declines that undercut even the
most pessimistic forecasts in 2015.
In the refractory mineral markets, prices for alumina,
graphite and magnesia all fell this year as soft demand,
overcapacity and cheap Chinese exports eroded global selling
Prices for antimony, both ingot and trioxide, posted some of
the biggest losses in 2015, with the market effectively going
into free fall in Q4, leaving prices below the $5,000/tonne
mark at the end of the year.
Frac sand prices are reported to have halved from 18 months
ago and proppant prices suffered similarly, however values for
the oilfield clay, bentonite, remained relatively stable over
the course of the year, with sources pointing to
diversification in end markets as the reason for the
mineral’s resilience to negative pressures.
Mineral sands and titanium dioxide (TiO2) also
had a tough year. Chinese prices for the pigment chemical rose
in H1, but experienced a sharp reversal in Q3 after the effects
of capacity ramp ups and the slowdown in the domestic
construction market began to eat savagely into the sector.
Lithium compound prices meanwhile continued on their upward
trend, with both hydroxide and carbonate prices posting gains
in Q4. Prices for Chilean material, which sources had
speculated was being deliberately kept low to entice buyers at
a time when more market share was up for grabs, recorded
increases towards the end of the year. How sustainable the
growth in lithium values is remains to be seen, however, and
much will depend on whether new supply comes online in
In China, fused alumina prices were reported to be under
strain at the end of 2015, as a result of the ongoing
contraction in domestic and international demand for
Medium purity grades of brown fused alumina (BFA) from Henan
province were being offered at prices of $550/tonne FOB.
IM’s prices for 95.5%
Al2O3 min BFA (refractory sized) stand at
Antimony trioxide (Sb2O3) producers in
China’s Hunan province said that production halts
implemented during the first quarter of 2015 and retained
throughout the year failed to prevent prices from sliding, as
sales of the flame retardant chemical declined to unsustainable
Between January and the end of August, output of Chinese
antimony products (ingot and trioxide) fell 7% year-on-year
(y-o-y), while stibnite (antimony ore, Sb) production declined
4.9% over the same period.
Third quarter prices for antimony ingot (99.6% min) averaged
Chinese renminbi (Rmb) 42,281/tonne ($6,610/tonne*), down 24.3%
y-o-y, pulling down the price of antimony trioxide, for which
the metal is a feedstock.
Industry sources have blamed the weak prices on slow demand
from antimony’s main end markets –
alloys, chemicals and flame retardants. Slow growth in the
plastics, chemical fibre, and coatings segments also failed to
keep pace with production. Lead battery and electric cable
production has contracted, meanwhile.
IM’s prices for antimony
trioxide (typically 99.5% Sb2O3) stood at
$4,850-4,950/tonne on a CIF Antwerp/Rotterdam basis and at
$4,800-4,900/tonne on an FOB China basis in mid-December.
Ingot (min 99.65%) prices stood at $4,800-5,100/tonne FOB
China and at $4,900-5,000/tonne CIF Rotterdam.
Prices for Chinese stibnite (min 50% Sb) in mid-November
stood at around Rmb 28,000/tonne ($4,377/tonne) on a domestic
basis and at $3,100-3,400/tonne FOB China in December.
Prices for standard grade antimony stood at
$4,900-5,200/tonne in mid-December, according to Metal
MB reported that almost all antimony producers lost
money in 2015 and are now reluctant to sell any further stock
at a loss.
US prices for both drilling, cat litter and foundry grades
of bentonite remained stable during the fourth quarter of 2015,
sources indicated to IM.
Selling values for the clay generally held up over the
course of the year, staving off market weakness led by the oil
price decline, which affected other oilfield minerals.
IM’s prices for iron ore
pelletising (IOP) bentonite (bulk, ex-works Wyoming) stand at
Cat litter material (ex-works Wyoming) is priced at
$47-58/s.ton ($52-64/tonne) and prices for drilling (API) grade
bentonite (bagged, rail car, ex-works Wyoming) stand at
The seasonal winter downturn in Chinese graphite production
had failed to push up graphite prices by mid-December, as
slowing market activity approaching the end of the year gave
suppliers little leverage to increase offers.
Prices for refractory grades of graphite are unlikely to
improve until the second half of 2016, or more likely until
2017, IM learned at the 5th
Graphite and Graphene Conference in London in December.
Producers, traders and buyers described the pricing
situation as "pretty miserable" across all grades of flake
graphite, although a handful said that they were able to make
money out of some lower grade products as buyers opted for
poorer quality in an effort to cut costs.
While few expected further price decreases before Janaury,
some sources said that the market might revive ahead of the
Chinese New Year in February.
As of December, the price of flake graphite (94-97% C, -100
mesh, FCL, CIF, Europe) stood between $750/tonne and
$850/tonne, while equivalent prices for +80 mesh grades stand
at $1,100/tonne, on average.
Excess supply of spherical graphite throughout 2015 saw
prices flat line. Any rebound in this area of the market is
unlikely to happen before H2 2016. The price of spherical
graphite (99.95% C, 15 microns, FOB China) in December stood at
an average of $2,750/tonne.
The price of amorphous graphite (80% C, -100 Mesh, FOB,
China) was between $380 and $410/tonne, meanwhile, level with
Delegates at the London conference in December also heard
that graphite, both natural and synthetic, is too expensive to
be widely used as a recarburiser in the steel manufacturing and
iron foundry industries.
David Wilson, project manager at Sheffield-based James
Durrans, said that despite its various performance advantages,
such as high solubility, graphite is not cost competitive
against substitute products which include anthracite coal,
calcined petroleum coke and metallurgical coke.
According to Wilson, calcined petroleum coke is the most
widely used recarburiser for iron and steel owing to its wide
availability and low cost, although other cheap carbon sources
such as crushed
coconut shells are also viable materials.
Wilson declined to give a price threshold at which carbon
materials are considered competitive for use as recarburisers
and some industry participants disputed the claim, saying that
large volume graphite mines could afford to sell fines
into the industry at breakeven or a profit.
In the graphene sector, some rare guidance on price levels
was issued by UK-based Thomas Swann & Co., which
manufactures nanocarbon materials out of natural graphite.
Dr Andy Goodwin, commercial manager for the advanced
materials division at Thomas Swan, said he expected graphene
would be priced at the same level as multi-wall nanotubes in
the medium term.
US-iodine producer Iofina Plc said in late November that it
agreed with an assessment made by rival iodine producer,
Chile’s Sociedad de Quimica y Minera SA (SQM),
that average market prices for iodine were now below
The company’s CEO, Tom Becker, added that the
rate of price decrease experienced in the second half of the
year was not as steep as that of the first half, but was
unwilling to predict how iodine prices might move in 2016.
IM’s prices for iodine
(crystal, 99.5% min, drums) currently stand at $27.5-32/kg on
spot and contract bases.
Prices for lithium compounds sourced from South American
brine reserves increased towards the end of Q4 2015. Delivered
values for lithium carbonate with minimum grades of 99-99.5%
LiC2O3 rose by as much as 7% from prices
traded in mid-2015, sources indicated.
Producers said that carbonate prices had followed rises in
lithium hydroxide seen earlier this year, citing demand from
battery manufacturers as the main reason for the increases.
Market observers have speculated that South American lithium
producers have been making efforts to minimise price inflation
in order to remain competitive.
IM’s prices for lithium
carbonate (min 99-99.5% LiC2O3, large
contracts, delivered continental US) now stand at $6.2-7/kg.
Prices for the same material (packed in bags) on a CIF Asia
basis also stand at $6-7.2/kg.
Prices for spodumene concentrate sold into Asia are reported
to be around the $450/tonne mark.
FOB China prices for caustic calcined magnesia (CCM)
weakened between mid-2015 and the end of the year.
The latest drop in prices for CCM (min 90-92% MgO) was
blamed on lacklustre market activity, with industry
participants describing the sector as "sluggish".
Selling values from China reportedly fell to a range of
$195-210/tonne, from $200-220/tonne, where they had been since
Sources said they did not anticipate trading to pick up
significantly before the end of the year.
Prices for deadburned magnesia (DBM) were also reported to
have fallen in December, as a result of thin trading and excess
being offered for clearance in China.
In the US, prices in the magnesia-carbon (MgO-C) brick
industry are likely to be sheltered slightly after the US
International Trade Commission (USITC) announced in December
that tariffs against resin-bonded MgO-C bricks from China
should remain in place and not be revoked,
While broadly firm-to-flat for early-mid 2015, potash prices
softened further in the second half of the year look to be on a
downwards trend into 2016.
In its latest commodity price data sheet, the World Bank
assessed potash prices to be $300/tonne, down $7/tonne since
April-June 2015, but up on July-September 2014, when prices
stood at $287/tonne.
Falling prices have been blamed partially on oversupply, but
also on the good growing conditions in major crop producing
regions, which have seen record crop yields over the past three
Price increases for 2016 contracts for US soda ash began to
look clearer by the end of 2015, but industry participants told
market reporters that the extent of the negotiated rises would
not be fully disclosed until January.
As usual, larger contracts are believed to have secured
smaller increases while lower volume buyers are expecting to
face slightly steeper hikes, although suppliers are generally
agreed to have settled for less than they had hoped.
Most of the US’ natural soda ash producers
announced list price increases of $11-12/s.ton
($12.1-13.2/tonne) in the summer. Despite a positive global
outlook for soda ash, with demand growth pegged at around 2.5%
per annum, according to chemicals consultancy IHS, localised
overcapacity and a rising amount of Chinese material on global
markets is expected to put pressure on prices in 2016.
Prices for TiO2 in China fell by around
$400/tonne since peaking in May-to-June 2015, delegates at the
TZMI 2015 Congress in Shanghai, China, heard at the end of
Prices for rutile TiO2 in China reportedly fell
by $30-40/tonne in early December, as slower buying activity
and growing inventories prompted producers to give in to lower
Locally-based sources said that overcapacity is continuing
to rise in the country and that none of the manufacturers of
the pigment chemical are willing to shut off production as they
vie to secure market share.
According to a Hong Kong-based trader, one positive aspect
to this situation is that it is preventing prices for rutile
and ilmenite feedstocks, which are imported into China from
locations including Africa and Australia, from sliding as
sharply as they might do otherwise.
Prices for anatase TiO2 in China had dropped to
Rmb 8,800-9,500 ($1,376-1,486/tonne) from Rmb 9,800-11,000
($1,534-1,722/tonne) at the end of November, with even lower
prices being offered by traders.
Chinese sources said they thought TiO2 prices
would probably fall further before the end of the year. The
Chinese TiO2 industry is suffering from overcapacity
and falling export demand. Slow progress in upgrading
manufacturing facilities to more efficient chloride-route
production technology is also adding pressure to margins.
IM’s prices for
TiO2 pigment (high quality, bulk) stand at
$1,650-1,850/tonne on a CFR Asia basis.
Prices for standard grade (65% min ZrO2) zircon
in China sank to around $1,000/tonne at the bottom end of
ranges in December.
Reports confirmed by IM indicated that
prices for ex-works material, excluding VAT, had slipped by
around Rmb 100/tonne ($16/tonne) in the last two weeks, driven
by aggressive negotiations and weak buyer interest.
Prices in export markets had not declined outside
IM’s published ranges as of
mid-December, however domestic Chinese prices for standard
grade zircon were reported stand in the range of Rmb
Sources in Australia and Africa declined to comment on the
market, however in mid-December, Australia-based mineral sands
miner Iluka Resources Ltd released its guidance for 2016, where
it offered a subdued outlook on the market.
The company reiterated its approach of not pursuing volumes
at the expense of prices where practicable, adding that the
approach has "limited erosion in its received
The November year-to-date averaged and realised price for
premium and standard zircon at the company stood at
$1,005/tonne, down from $1,033/tonne in 2014, Iluka said.
Rutile price averages had not changed since the August
guidance release, standing at $777/tonne.
*Conversions made December 2015
Full information on all
IM’s prices can be
found on the IM Prices Database