Kaolin’s opportunity

By IM Staff
Published: Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Although kaolin has long been associated with the paper industry, new opportunities are presenting themselves in new markets, such as ceramics. Ian Wilson, Consultant, details how each producing country in the world is responding to new calls for demand.

The name 'kaolin’ is derived from the village of Gaoling in Jiangxi province, China, where the white clay was mined.  The nearby Jingdezhen potteries used the kaolin to create their fine white porcelain. Europeans identified the composition of Chinese porcelain in the 18th Century and deposits of kaolin were sought in Europe. This led to the discovery of the kaolin deposits in Cornwall, southwest England, which were named china clay.

Kaolin is white commercial clay consisting predominantly of the mineral kaolinite, a hydrated aluminosilicate. Kaolinite, Al2Si2O5 (OH)4 is triclinic, the other associated kaolin group minerals (halloysite, nacrite and dickite) being monoclinic. Kaolinite and halloysite are the most commonly found members of the kaolin group whilst nacrite and dickite are considered rare. However, with the progress made in infrared spectroscopy techniques, nacrite and dickite are now being found in association with kaolinite in many deposits. 

The levels of nacrite and dickite are used as a guide by the oil industry as an indication of depth of burial of sediments, the levels of the two minerals increasing with higher temperatures and pressures at depth. 

Types of deposits

Kaolin deposits are encountered throughout the world and new deposits are still being discovered. A deposit may be classified as either primary or sedimentary. Primary, or residual deposits, were formed by the alteration in situ of the parent rocks, which may have been igneous, metamorphic or volcanic in origin, by hydrothermal and weathering processes. Sedimentary, or secondary, kaolin is derived from the erosion of pre-existing rocks and the subsequent transport and deposition of the clay.

In Cornwall and Devon, the kaolinite is derived from the late-stage magmatic or hydrothermal decomposition of feldspar within granite. It is separated from the host granite by washing it out with high-pressure water hoses, a process known as monitoring. The kaolin content rarely exceeds 20% of the altered granite, but the depth of kaolinisation extends in many places down to 300m.  In Western Australia, vast tracts of granitic rock have been weathered down to 50m, and the kaolin content often exceeds 40%. 

The best-known sedimentary kaolin deposits are from Georgia in the US and the Amazon Basin in Brazil. The deposits of kaolin were formed from the erosion of deeply weathered crystalline rocks in plateau areas, which were then transported and deposited as sedimentary sequences. Here, the kaolin is found in lenses, often between 5-20m thick, and with a high percentage of kaolinite, around 80-95%, which is dry mined.

Global production of kaolin

Kaolin is found in many countries but it is just the beneficiated, or refined clays that will be considered in this article. Worldwide production is estimated by the US Geological Society (USGS) to be 34m tonnes per annum (tpa).  However, this value includes 4.5m tpa (largely unprocessed) from India and 3.1m tpa (tonnage of matrix mined not processed) from Czech Republic, which distort the figures for production.  Global sales of processed kaolin in 2015 were estimated by USGS to range from 25-27m tonnes.   


Since 1980 there has been a lot of consolidation within the kaolin sector.  

Whilst the situation with the major players has not changed much, some significant producers have been acquired by the majors.   

Imerys acquired Goonvean Ltd in Cornwall in 2013, which had a capacity of 180,000 tpa and several mines. AKW acquired Bulgarian company Kaolin AD with estimated production of 200,000 tpa.    

An estimate of global production of kaolin in 2015 for processed material is 25.23m tonnes with a regional split shown in Figure 1. Six countries account for 66% of global production in Figure 2.

Figure 1: Regional share of global production
of 25,23m tonnes for 2015 
Source: USGS, BGS, Ian Wilson 

Figure 2: Six countries account for 66% of
global production 
Source: USGS, BGS, Ian Wilson 

Table 1: Consolidation of kaolin companies from 1980-2016 
Source: Ian Wilson


Imerys is the largest kaolin company in the world and accounts for an estimated 20% of global production.  Imerys produces kaolin in Australia, Brazil, France,  New Zealand (Halloysite), Portugal, Thailand, Ukraine, UK and the US.

The kaolin division manufactures a full range of products for the paper and packaging paints, plastic or polymers, adhesive and sealants, and ceramic industries. Imerys is the world leader for kaolin used in paper.

Kaolin Reserves and Resources

In 2015 Imerys reported proven and probable reserves of 96.2m tonnes with 78% in the Americas (includes the US and Brazil), 20% in Europe (includes Cornwall, UK) and Asia/Pacific (2%) as shown in Table 2.   For comparison figures for 2014 are shown and note that these included a breakdown for North and South America as in 2015 it reports a combined figure.    

In 2014 the split of proven and probable reserves was 40% for South America (predominantly the Amazon deposit in Brazil), 38% in North America, 20% in Europe and 2% in Asia/Pacific.

Kaolin total resources (measured, indicated and inferred) for 2015 was 170.7m tonnes split between Americas (89%), Europe (7%) and Asia/Pacific (4%).

The US

US production in 2015 was down by 2% (5,000 tonnes) from 2014 and exports down by 222,000 tonnes.  For 2015 imports of kaolin were 88% from Brazil.   2.45m tonnes of kaolin was exported to Japan (17%), Mexico (5%), China (14%), Finland (9%) and Canada (8%).

Of the 6.16m tonnes production, 90% (5.54m tonnes) is from Georgia with 5% from South Carolina and 5% from Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, Florida, North Carolina and California.  The main producers in Georgia are KaMin LLC (formerly Huber), Thiele, Imerys (formerly English China Clays) and BASF (formerly Engelhard) who formed the China Clays Producers Association (CCPA).   

About 40% of all kaolin sold was water-washed, followed by calcined clay (20%), airfloat (20%), delaminated (15%) and unprocessed (5%) as shown in Figure 3.

Table 2: IMERYS: Kaolin Reserves Estimates for 2014 and 2015 ('000 tonne) 
Source:  Imerys-2016 Registration Document 

Figure 3: US production by process for 2015 (%) 
Source: USGS 

Changes in Georgia

Imerys acquired BASF’S PHK (paper hydrous kaolin) in November 2015 while BASF retains its important calcined clay operations.   The acquisition does not involve any production assets but will take on BASF’s patents, brands, customer relationships and contracts, but not the company’s existing staff.  The transaction also includes the Gibraltar mill in Wilkinson County.  

BASF will continue to own and operate its assets in Georgia, including kaolin reserves, mining and production facilities as well as a slurry facility in Ghent, Belgium. The changes are due to several key markets declining including graphical paper, ceramics and proppants.  The market for graphical paper continues to decline as e-media becomes more popular.  

KaMin – shortly after the Imerys acquisition of BASF’s PHK business, KaMin acquired the ultrafine paper hydrous kaolin (UPHK) business.  The UPHK business was part of the recently acquired paper hydrous kaolin (PHK) business from BASF.  Imerys will retain all of the non-UPHK business from the BASF transaction.  The transaction for acquiring UPHK did not involve any production assets.  KaMin will have a large share of the ultrafine clay market with its operation in Brazil (CADAM) and the plant at Wrens, Georgia.   

KaMin said that Imerys had reviewed all the available strategic options for the UPHK operations and concluded that the deal offered the "best option for a smooth and efficient transition of the existing UPHK customers". Imerys said that KaMin could provide a "sustainable long-term source supply of ultrafine kaolin for these customers".

KaMin has the know-how and unique process to produce the very fine clays and sufficient capacity in their Georgia facilities. The fine particle clays are the most widely used worldwide in numerous coating applications.  Delivering the highest gloss and coatings solids, the fine particle clays are the perfect complement in high carbonate coating formulations to optimise properties and printability. Ultrafine clays produced from CADAM (Brazil) are Amazon Plus and Amazon Premium and from Wrens (Georgia) Hydrafine 90, Hydrafine 90W, Hydragloss 90 and Hydragloss 91. 

KaMin fine particle technology has also delivered performance benefits in diverse industrial applications such as paint, plastics, rubber, adhesives, and inks.

On 1 April 2008 IMin Partners acquired the kaolin business of Huber Engineered Material and named the company KaMin LLC.  Tom Chambers, partner and co-founder of IMin Partners based in in Fort Worth, Texas, is a private equity capital fund dedicated to investing in specialty minerals and chemical businesses.


Production of kaolin in China was estimated at 4m tonnes in 2015, with its major market being ceramics. 

Kaolin deposits are found in a wide range of geological settings both in the coastal and the inland provinces of southern China. The largest primary resources have been derived from the alteration of granitic rocks and their extrusive equivalents. High-quality kaolin at Longyan in Fujian province is suitable for high-quality tableware.   

China is the largest producer of ceramics in the world and relies on local kaolin resources with some imports of higher quality material.    

The sedimentary kaolin in Maoming, with production of 250,000 tpa is the only significant producer of coating clay in China with reasonable brightness and viscosity for coated board.  

However, finer particle size distribution, good rheology kaolin is imported mainly from Brazil and the US. Most of the paper filler now utilises group calcium carbonate (GCC) and precipitated calcium carbonate (PCC) with abundant marble and limestone sources in China.  

Whilst the paper market has increased, the level of coating clay has decreased over the last decade with up to just 10% used in the top coat mixed with GCC at 95% <2µ and finer. 

Also well known in China are the so-called hard kaolins that are greyish clays, often with low iron and titania, associated with coal measures in northern China. On calcination, these grey clays produce a high-quality, high brightness calcined product suitable for paper and speciality markets.

Imports of Kaolin

Imports of kaolin from the US, Brazil and others are shown in Table 4 and plotted in Figure 4.   The US accounts for 88% of the imports with Brazil (12%) and others (9%).

Figure 4: Imports of kaolin into China from USA, Brazil and
others from 2011-2015 
Source: Table 

Table 3: US:  Production, imports,
exports and apparent consumption (2015) 
(1) Defined as production (sold or used) +
 imports - exports
Source: Daniel Flanagan, USGS Mineral
Commodities, January 2016 

Exports of Kaolin

Chinese customs report that 1.1m tonnes with a value of $108m was exported in 2015 with 93% to ten countries in Asia (Figure 6).

China is the largest global paper producer in 2015 with 107.1m tonnes, an increase of 2.29% from 2014. 

Consumption in 2015 was 103.5m tonnes, an increase of 2.79% from 2014.    A split of the grades for 2015 is shown in Figure 7.

In 2015, compared to 2014, there was a decrease of newsprint (-9.23%) and coated paper (-0.65%), with increases in printing and writing paper (1.75%), tissue (6.63%), packaging paper (2.31%), coated board (2.31%), liner/kraft (2.98%), corrugating grade (3.25%), specialty paper (6.0%) and other paper and board (10.26%).

Figure 5: Imports of kaolin into China from US,
Brazil and others (%), 2015 
Source: Chinese Customs 

Figure 6: Exports of kaolin from China (%) in 2015    
Source: Chinese Customs 

Figure 7: Chinese production of paper and board
of 107.1m tonnes in 2015 (%) 
Source: Chinese Paper Association, June 2016


Production of beneficiated kaolin in 2015 is estimated at 301,050 tonnes with 191,000 tonnes (63%) for hydrous kaolin and 110,050 tonnes (37%) calcined clay. 

Production and capacity of processed hydrous kaolin is shown in Table 5 and calcined clay in Table 6.   

45,000 tonnes of fine particle size hydrous kaolin was imported in 2015 from the US by KaMin and Thiele (Kaofine 90) for paper coating. 8,000 tonnes of calcined clay were imported in 2015 by Imerys (grades Neogen and Polestar 501) and by CMP Shanxi (CMP 90).  

According to Chinese customs 29,814 tonnes of kaolin were exported to India at a value of $6.1m.

Table 4. China Imports of kaolin from USA and Brazil and average prices 2011-2015 
Source: Chinese Customs 

Table 5: Production of hydrous kaolin in India 2015 
Source: Pramod Pillai, former GM at EICL and Ashapura 

Table 6: Production of calcined clay in India 2015 
Source: Pramod Pillai, former GM at EICL and Ashapura 

Table 7: SAWA Clay sand and clay products and applications 
Source: Sawa 

English Indian Clay Ltd (EICL)

EICL Limited (formerly known as English Indian Clays Limited), a company incorporated in India in 1963, under the Companies Act 1956, was part of the Thapar Group. The company is engaged in the business of mining of clay (kaolin) and the manufacturing of processed clay and starch. 

The history of the Indian kaolin industry is directly linked to EICL since it was the first processed kaolin plant to be put up in 1963 by the Maharaja of Travancore and a local businessman. English China Clays Ltd became involved in technical and financial collaboration.   

In 1992 ECC had a policy not to be involved in joint ventures and at the time production was around 20,000 tpa.    Since 1992 EICL increased the production of hydrous clay significantly and introduced calcined clay.  

At present EICL is the leading producer of hydrous kaolin and calcined clay, as shown in Tables 5 and 8.
EICL entered into a joint-venture agreement with MAC Group Limited of Tanzania in FY 2014-15 for prospecting of mines and evaluation of a proposed clay manufacturing facility in Tanzania (East Africa) based on the Pugu kaolin deposit.   In the EICL Notes to Account, Year End March 2016, it was reported that there was no further progress during the year


Ashapura used to use kaolin from the Bhuj mine that was mainly used in their crude washing plants for ceramic and white cement in break-bulk shipments.   After a failed attempt to set up a hydrous clay plant in Trivandrum, Kerala, Ashapura no longer produces any hydrous clay anywhere now.  However the Kerala plant has been relocated to Bhuj and has been updated, which has led to some optimism that the company could yet become an important producer, albeit with kaolin sources from elsewhere.

The plant commissioning of 50,000 tpa hydrous kaolin and 25,000 tpa calcined clay (30,000 tpa hydrous kaolin feed) is expected to be online in November 2016.

Progressive & Popular Minerals Pvt. Ltd (MAAMPL)

MS Sawa Clay & Minerals Pvt. Ltd. (MSSCMPL) is an associated company of Progressive & Popular Minerals Pvt. Ltd. Its mines hold proved mineable mineral reserves of more than 250m tonnes and are located in close proximity to a sand washing plant in Sawa, District Chittorgarh, Rajasthan in the northwest of India.   The processing plant is 2.5km from the mine with the nearest railway loading yard 8km away at Station Shambhupura. The nearest port Kandla/Mundra is 650 km distant.  

MS Sawa Clays mine a white kaolinitic sand with a view of one of the opencast pits in Figure 8.    

The process produces three types of sand and three types of clay based on the particle size.   

The products, dry weight TPD (tonnes per day) and applications.

For clay the process entails a hydrocyclone systems, screening and for finer grades passes through a centrifuge with bleaching and further screening.   This is then filter pressed, flash dried then milled in a Raymond mill and subsequently auto-packed into 25 and 50kg bags. 

Australian developments

Tellus Holdings Ltd 

Tellus is developing the Sandy Ridge facility 140km northwest of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia primarily for waste disposal in voids created by the mining and for processing of the removed kaolin. 

Sandy Ridge kaolin deposit is approximately 160km long, 20km wide, flat, overburden 6m deep, kaolin thickness 7 to 24m thick with an average of 14m. The kaolinised granite has an inferred resource of 41.3m tonnes.    Stage 1 of production will be 12,000 tpa with the plant built with a capacity of 40,000 tpa.   Stage 2 will be dependent on market demand.   

Kaolin will be in one tonne big bags loaded into containers at the plant, taken by rail to Freemantle Port and to Asia by container ship. The kaolin sales will be aimed for export for Asian market for tableware ceramics as well as being suitable for glass fibre, ceramics, paint and others. 

The voids resulting from mining will be used  to provide Western Australia with a  licensed facility that safely allows for the storage, treatment, recovery and permanent isolation of bulk waste products, or the secure storage and isolation of hazardous materials.   

Some of these products may be classified as dangerous or hazardous goods, such as those listed wastes under Schedule 1 of the National Environment Protection (Movement of Controlled Waste between States and Territories) measure or NEPM 75. 

Waste not accepted is Nuclear Waste as defined in the nuclear waste Storage and Transportation (Prohibition) Act 1999, Intermediate level (ILW), High-level radioactive waste (HLW) and Infectious or clinical materials (excluding pharmaceuticals). 

Altech Chemicals Ltd

Altech is aiming to become one of the world`s leading suppliers of 99.99% high purity alumina (HPA). HPA (Al2O3) in the key.  

HPA is a high-value, high margin and highly demanded product as it is the critical ingredient required for the production of artificial sapphire. Artificial sapphire is used in the manufacture of substrates for LED lights, semiconductor wafers used in the electronics industry and scratch-resistant artificial sapphire glass. Sapphire glass is used in models of the Apple watch.   There is no substitute for HPA in the manufacture of artificial sapphire.  

Altech was recently granted its mining lease at Meckering, where it is planning to mine 120,000 tonnes of kaolin every three years on a campaign basis with each one lasting two months.   The kaolin matrix will be stockpiled, placed into standard shipping containers at the rate of 40,000 tpa and transported to Johor, Malaysia for processing into HPA at the company’s proposed plant.  The Meckering deposit covers approximately 1,000 km2 in area and has an indicated and inferred Resource estimated at 65m tonnes with 83.4% brightness.     

Swan River Kaolin (SRK) carried out exploration and development work at the deposit in the 1990’s.   Pilot trials were carried out at SRK’s facility in Northam, WA on a 48-tonne bulk sample from a trial pit with 19 tonnes produced that was suitable for paper and ceramic grades.

On 27 April 2016 Altech signed an offtake sales arrangement with Mitsubishi for the first 10 years of production and secured sales for 100% of proposed 4,000 tpa HPA.   

The take off sales for year 1 will be 2,700 tonnes building up to 3,800 tonnes (year 4) and 4,000 tonnes (years 5-10).

Figure 8: View of MS Sawa Clay mine 

Western Australia Kaolin 

(WAK) Pty

In Western Australia, the kaolinised granite deposits were evaluated in great detail by CRA/Rio Tinto in the Wickepin area, 180km south-east of Perth. These were acquired some years ago by WA Kaolin Holdings Pty Ltd (WAK).   

From 1994 until 1996, 601 holes were drilled with 220 holes drilled in 2003-04 (a total of almost 20,000 metres of drilling core) and further drilling carried out by WAK and by CVRD (Brazil). Extensive resources have been outlined and a mining license on one area covering 10 km2  was granted.  

Detailed characterisation studies of the deposit have been carried out at UK, Japanese, Brazilian and US laboratories, and a potential high brightness (>90 ISO brightness) delaminated clay (high aspect ratio) for the Asian market has been identified.  A plant was established at Kwinana but production was limited and with excess of coating clay being produced globally, there was little appetite for investment by major companies.  

In 2016 WAK will complete the construction of a new 20,000 tonne processing plant at Kwinana for its K99 product for ceramics, fiberglass and as a precursor for refining into premium paper coating grades for selected customers.    Commissioning is underway and plans startup in October 2016. Views of the K99 dry process plant are shown in Figures 9 and 10.

The plant is mostly sized for 200,000 tonnes when the plant is relocated to the mine site by mid 2017. Marketing will start immediately after startup.

Figure 9: 50 tph clay feeder to K99 Dry Process 

Figure 10: K99 - Dry Process Plant  

Kaolin and proppants in the US

Ceramic proppant producers in the US are experiencing a downturn in the market at present on the back of sluggish oil and gas exploration.

Carbo Ceramics Inc (five plants), Imerys Oilfied Soultions (two plants) and Saint Gobain Proppants (two plants) are the three main producers in the country.

Saint Gobain utilises bauxite as its feedstock, but Carbo uses bauxite, kaolin and alumina and Imerys only uses kaolin.

Imerys announced in July 2011 the inauguration in Andersonville, Gerogia a production unit for ceramic proppants which was commissioned in 2013.  Imerys were already active in this market with rod shaped proppants (PropyniteTM) and mineral additives. The proppant production unit represented an investment of around $60m, and was built on the Andersonville site. The Andersite built up capacity of over 220m lbs pa  of ceramic proppants.

In April 2013 Imerys purchased PyraMax Ceramics LLC, which was in the process of constructing and completing a plant in Wrens (Georgia) for ceramic proppants. The plant had two production lines and would be gradually ramped up during 2014 for a total annual capacity of 225,000 tonnes with an investment of $235m. 

When the factory was being constructed, project managers said the Wrens plant’s total proppant capacity was seven rail cars per day and that the 10 silos they had planned could contain 2.8m lbs of capacity each, a total of 14,400 tonnes or 20 days of production. 

Current capacity is 500 m.lbs pa giving a total of 720 m.lbs pa with the Andersonville plant.

In late February 2015 Imerys announced it would idle its facility in Andersonville, Georgia and reduce production at the Wrens plant due to oil prices dropping from $108 a barrel to $50 a barrel in about eight months.

Carbo Ceramics proppants are made by grinding or dispersing ore to a fine powder, combining the powder into small pellets and firing the pellets in a rotary kiln. The company uses three different methods to produce ceramic proppant. Its plants in McIntyre, Georgia; Kopeysk, Russia and Luoyang, China use a dry process, which utilises clay, bauxite, bauxitic clay or kaolin. The raw material is ground, pelletized and screened. The manufacturing process is completed by firing the product in a rotary kiln.

The company’s plants in Eufaula, Alabama, Toomsboro, Georgia, and Millen, Georgia, use a wet process, which starts with kaolin that is formed into slurry. The slurry is then pelletized in a dryer and the pellets are then fired in a rotary kiln.

The portion of the company’s plant in New Iberia, Louisiana that manufactures ceramic proppant uses a new manufacturing process associated with the Company’s KRYPTOSPHERE product line. In addition, construction has begun to retrofit another of the company’s plants with this new process.

The company’s Eufaula, McIntyre, Toomsboro and Millen facilities primarily use locally mined kaolin for the production of CARBOLITE® , CARBOECONOPROP® and CARBOHYDROPROP® . 

Carbo has entered into bilateral contracts for at least 50% of the Eufaula facility’s and Millen facility’s annual kaolin requirements. 

The Eufaula contract runs through 2017, with options to extend this agreement for additional three year terms. The Millen contract, which commenced in July 2014, has an initial term of five years with options to extend the agreement for an additional five years. 

Carbo has obtained ownership rights in acreage in Wilkinson County, Georgia, which contains in excess of a 12 year supply of kaolin for its Georgia facilities based on full capacity production rates. It has entered into a long-term agreement with a third party to mine and transport this material at a fixed price subject to annual adjustment.

The agreement requires Carbo utilise the third party to mine and transport a majority of the McIntyre and Toomsboro facility’s annual kaolin requirement.

However, the continuing slowdown in shale oil fields has prompted Carbo to mothball its proppant manufacturing facility in McIntyre, Georgia with an annual production capacity of 275m lbs. Slowing production is to assist in managing cash and inventory levels. The company deferred the completion of a second ceramic proppant manufacturing line at its Millen, Georgia facility.

Arcilla Mining & Land Co. was started in 1992 in Georgia and much of its production was used as a feed for Carbo Ceramics for proppants. The success of the Georgia mining work led to expansion of the company into kaolin-rich areas of South Carolina. In 2005, Arcilla moved equipment into Arkansas for mining of bauxite. Arcilla supplies clay to three Carbo plants in Alabama and Georgia. Around 2012 Arcilla was mining 3.17m tonnes of kaolin and 272,155 tonnes of bauxite from all their deposits in the US.

Daniel Flanagan (USGS, Clay Specialist), Professor Wen Lu (Chengdu, China), Larry Lai (Yie-Lie Enterprise, China), Alf Baker (WA Kaolin Australia), Pramod Pillai (former GM of EICL and Ashapura, India), Sankameeswaran Shanmugam and JP Dave (MS Sawa Clay & Minerals), Frank Hart (First Test Minerals, UK), Nick Wilshaw (Grinding Solutions, UK) and Murray Lines (Stratum Consultants).