Ceramics minerals: Taking the floor

By Kasia Patel
Published: Wednesday, 24 February 2016

While technical ceramics may be a growing application for minerals such as kaolin and zircon, the majority of these are still consumed by traditional applications like construction and tiles. Kasia Patel, North American Editor, looks at some recent developments in the sector.

The ceramics industry is a major end market for several minerals, including kaolin (also known as china clay), feldspar, titanium dioxide (TiO2), wollastonite, zirconia and zircon. Wall and floor tiles represent the largest end use segment of the ceramics industry, which, aside from their traditional applications as building materials, have also become increasingly used for hygiene reasons thanks to a new generation of organic-matter destroying coatings. The environmental impact of building materials can also be reduced thanks to novel forms of ceramic sheeting and strong, lightweight thin tiles.

The Industrial Minerals Association of Europe (IMA-Europe) is one of the chief proponents of advancing R&D in ceramics, arguing that raw materials are vital to breakthroughs in this area. "Technological developments in the ceramic sector is an area in which industrial minerals are at the forefront of progress," the association states. "Being made of minerals, the properties of these new ceramics are obviously tightly dependent upon those of their raw materials, and purity requirements are becoming increasingly stringent."

Bricks, roof tiles and pipes represent the second largest end use segment for ceramics, where they are used owing to their their high resistance to fire and ability to provide insulation from sound, vibrations, electricity, electrostatic and ionising radiation, fluctuations in temperature and their capacity to be waterproofed.

Refractories for high-temperature industrial processes are another important end market for ceramic minerals. Ceramics form the lining basis for reactors, transport vessels or kilns in the form of monolithics, bricks, shapes and high-temperature insulation wools. 

Other consumers of ceramic minerals include technical ceramics, table and ornamentalware, and sanitaryware. 

Ceramic end use markets 2007-2014

Ceramics1  

Source: EuroStat 2015 

US: Room to grow

The US housing and construction sector, which is on a bumpy upward trend as it continues to recover from the 2008-2009 slump, following the country’s sub-prime mortgage and global banking crises, is a major consumer of ceramics, mostly in the form of tiles for flooring. The majority of its ceramics needs are imported as finished or partly finished products, rather than ceramic raw materials. Imports accounted for 70% of ceramic tile dollar sales in 2014, according to Floor Covering News (FCN), which said that Italy, China and Mexico made up more than 75% of the dollar value of ceramic tile imports sold in the US.

Italy was the leading exporter of floor tiles to the US during the year, accounting for 34.8%
 of all imports into the country. China followed at 25.7% of exports; Mexico with 16.5%; Spain at 10%; Turkey at 4%; and Brazil with 3% of exports into the US. By volume, Mexico
was the largest exporter into the US, accounting for 29.5% of imports, while China represented 29.4% by volume. Around 80% of the ceramics imported to the US in 2014 were floor tiles.

In the US, and globally, ceramics used for interior construction applications like flooring (12.5% of the US market in terms of dollar sales and 11.2% of volume in 2014) compete with other materials such as textiles (carpets and rugs, at 44.9% and 12.3% of wholesale dollars, respectively in the US in 2014), wood (9.9%) laminates (5.8%), rubber and stone.

The US represents a large growth market for ceramic tiles. Per capita ceramic tile consumption increased to 7.6 square feet in the US in 2014, according to FCN, a long way behind countries like Spain, where ceramic tile per capita stood at 25 square feet. It even lags its neighbour, Canada, where 10.65 square feet is the average per capita figure for ceramic tile usage.

This opportunity has been noticed by sector observers. "The growth potential for ceramic tile in the US is still very high and can increase five times or more," ceramics specialists, Ceramic Tile and Stone Consultants (CTaSC), noted last year.

"China’s per capita consumption was 34 square feet per capita and considering their 1.351bn population, that gives China over 35% of the world consumption in 2014," it added.

FCN figures showed that of the tile consumption in the US in 2014, residential remodelling accounted for 47%. The commercial segment made up 28% of demand while the new residential construction segment drove 25% of ceramic tile sales.

In mid-2015, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) in the US reported that existing home sales in the second quarter of the year increased 93% in the country’s metro areas, indicating a recovery in the housing market, although rising house prices could slow the rate of growth this year.

Growth led by Asia Pacific

As a segment wedded to the construction sector, demand for ceramic minerals globally is exposed to factors such as GDP, government policies and demographics as well as consumer tastes – all of which vary from country to country, giving the industry a sometimes irregular demand profile.

One part of the world where projected demand growth looks to be fairly solid is the Asia-Pacific region, where emerging economies, rising populations and expanding middle classes are supporting demand for ceramic products, which fall into the categories of both necessities and luxuries.

According to a report published by Transparency Market Research in January 2016, the global ceramic tiles market – including floor tiles, wall tiles and others – for residential replacement, commercial, new residential and other applications, is expected to increase by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.2% between 2013 and 2019, driven by a surge in construction projects in Asia-Pacific. 

The market was valued at $60.74bn in 2013 and is predicted to rise to $112.32bn by 2019, as a result of the "flourishing global construction industry, which accounts for a major share of the overall demand for a variety of ceramic tiles, is a key factor driving the global ceramic tiles market".

Transparency Market Research outlines that global ceramic tiles demand has been propelled forward as a result of the easy availability of raw materials and rising technological interventions in the manufacturing process. 

"In emerging economies such as India and China, rising levels of urbanisation, improving economic conditions, growth in GDP, high per capita income and increased spending power have led to a rise in the number of residential and commercial construction projects," the report said. "This has consequently benefited the market for ceramic tiles in Asia Pacific," it added. Since 2013, Asia-Pacific has emerged as the market leader in terms of ceramic tile production. The region also leads the global industry in consumption and a number of manufacturers of all kinds of ceramics are choosing Asia-Pacific as a region to locate new operations.

In February this year, technical ceramics specialist, Germany’s Nabaltec AG, announced it would form a Japanese subsidiary in Tokyo by the end of Q1 2016, after setting up an office in Shanghai, China, in 2013, to "better exploit the potential which the Asian market offers us," according to Johannes Heckmann, a member of the Nabaltec board.

The same month, leading global industrial minerals supplier, Imerys SA, said in its full year 2015 earnings report that it was refocusing the efforts of its ceramics operation on emerging economies in Asia, saying that the business had recorded a year of firm sales in its traditional markets of floor tiles, sanitaryware and tableware.

European ceramics industry

Despite strong growth centres underpinning an overall rise in predicted consumption of ceramics, regional pockets of supply and demand do not always match up, leaving parts of the upstream supply chain facing less than rosy market conditions.

European producers of ceramics have noted a drop in demand for products on account of slowing growth in China and a decline in local consumption, as construction activity in Europe has not recovered as quickly as anticipated. 

The leading producers of ceramics in 2014 (2015 figures are not yet available), according to the European Ceramics Industry Association (Cerame Unie), were Italy, Germany, Spain, France, the UK, Poland, Portugal and Austria.

Eurostat statistics show that 2014 production was comparable to 2013, at less than 1% variation, with the ceramics industry accounting for around €28.2bn ($31.4bn*) in 2014, 30% lower than pre-crisis levels, according to Cerame Unie. 

"These results were related to the fragile outlook of the EU economy and of the construction sector in particular. According to Eurostat statistics, in 2014 GDP rose by 0.9% in the euro area and by 1.4% in the EU28. In the same year, production value increased by 3.1% in the whole construction industry and by 3.8% in the building sector," the association outlined. 

*Conversion made February 2016

Indian ceramics

Indian firm Lhiar Minerals is a producer and exporter of high quality silica sand, bentonite and kaolin. The company has a 60,000 tpa bentonite powder capacity and supplies the foundry, paper, paint, adhesives, animal feed and pharmaceutical industries. 

The company’s kaolin production totals around 45,000 tpa. Lihar’s director, RP Sharma, told IM that while demand for kaolin in paper applications has been declining owing to cheaper material substitutes, consumption of the mineral in the ceramics sector has remained strong and has been showing signs of rapid growth domestically.

According to Sharma, the tile industry in Morbi, India is performing well and is the largest domestic consumer of kaolin. "The tableware industry in Kerala and Delhi are other major consumers of the kaolin mineral," he explained.

Sharma added that Kaolin produced in Kutch, Gujarat has brightness and whiteness properties, making it idea for use as a glaze and in other ceramics applications.

"Around 60% of our premium grade LK Glaze Plus is consumed by the ceramic industry, followed by the paper industry, paint and fast moving consumer goods (FMCG)," he told IM.  

The expansion of construction activity in a number of regions globally is expected to drive demand for kaolin and other ceramics minerals, Sharma said.

"The development of the sanitaryware and ceramic tile markets around the globe, and the emergence of bioceramics in the field of endodontics, have been identified as key growth drivers of the kaolin and metakaolin markets," he added.

In India, Gujarat remains the leading state in terms of kaolin production for the ceramics industry, accounting for 54% of the country’s output. Domestically, the cement industry accounted for around 45% of China clay consumed, followed by ceramics with 42%.

Major challenges facing the industry have become somewhat ingrained in recent years, Sharma said. These include mass production of low cost products from China, mainly for the tableware and sanitaryware sectors. This, coupled with lower investment in the construction sector globally during 2015, had a significant impact on the tile and sanitaryware sectors in India.

New technologies are, however, helping to drive growth in the ceramics sector, according to Sharma, such as new coatings and more durable raw materials. 

"Stronger and longer-lasting materials must be found, not only for the end products, but also for the tools used in the manufacturing processes," he said. "The standardisation of conditions necessary for the development of crystalline glazes and factors that contribute to metal marking is done, development of heat treatment cycles and microstructure evolution is the other major thing which is monitored in glaze recipes."

"Consistency in raw material quality, mainly kaolin, is the base for any new technological advancements in ceramics," he added.

High-flying applications for ceramics

Specially coated ceramic tiles are used to protect space shuttles, which are exposed to temperatures of up to 2,300°F (1,260°C) on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere. Tiles are covered either with black glass or a whitewash of silica compounds and aluminium oxide, depending where in the shuttle they are used, to reflect around 90% of the heat they are exposed to.

Researchers in the US have recently come up with a method of 3D printing ceramic microlattices, which have fewer flaws than ceramics made using conventional sintering processes, and could be used in space shuttles or other aerial vehicles and jet engines.