Whiter than white? Global talc developments

By IM Staff
Published: Thursday, 22 February 2018

China is still the world’s largest producer of talc but its influence after 50 years of dominating high-quality white talc is starting to wane, UK consultant Ian Wilson discovers.

While China remains the most important talc producer in the world, the balance of exports of talc have dramatically changed with more talc powder being exported from the country over lumps:  547,908 tonnes of powder were exported in 2017 compared to 264,613 tonnes in 2006.  Comparisons between 2006 and 2017 are shown in Table 1. 

That said, increases in the costs of Chinese white talc and powder in recent years have put it at a competitive disadvantage especially to Pakistan and Afghanistan, which have become important suppliers of white talc to world markets.

Figure 1: Variation of mineralogy of some talc deposits 
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Source: Ian Wilson 

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Geology and origin of talc

Leading producer Imerys Talc classifies talc deposits into four types based on the rocks from which they are formed:

1. Magnesium carbonate 
2. Serpentinite 
3. Siliceous or silico-aluminous rocks
4. Magnesium sedimentary deposits

A summary of three of the types with respect to formation and some locations is shown in Table 2. Magnesium sedimentary deposits are included for reasons of completeness but generally are impure - meaning that talc is associated with other minerals such as  magnesium carbonate and other minerals, therefore a lot of beneficiation will be necessary - so little is currently mined in significant volumes although the potential resources are large, particularly in China.

Talc can show variable mineralogy - chlorite, carbonate and other minerals may be present (see figure 1).

Material mined from some deposits, such as the Finnish deposits belonging to Mondo Minerals, can be made purer through beneficiation to remove contaminants. Talc can also vary in colour, with examples of white, pink, greyish and green types found across the world.

Talc derived from dolomite and magnesite is generally macrocrystalline while talc from serpentinite (ultrabasic rock) is generally microcrystalline. 

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Global talc production

Table 3 shows estimated talc production for 33 countries in 2016. The USGS estimate for Chinese production in 2016 is 1.8 million tonnes.

Afghanistan was not included in USGS estimates so 400,000 tonnes have been added*, taking overall global talc production to 6.6m tonnes. 

A split of world talc production in 2016 on a regional basis is shown in Figure 2. Ten countries accounted for 89% of 2016 global production, as shown in Figure 3.

United States

Three companies operated five talc-producing mines in three US states during 2016 when domestic production of crude talc fell an estimated 4% year-on-year fall to 660,000 tonnes, valued at $19.1 million, according to the USGS. 

Montana was the largest producing state in volume terms, followed by Texas and Vermont. Imerys Talc America has operations in Montana and Vermont, Speciality Minerals in Montana and American Talc in Texas.

Total sales (domestic and export) of talc by US producers were an estimated 545,000 tonnes, valued at $97.5 million, a slight decline from those in 2015. (See figure 6 for market uses of US imported talc in 2016). 

Pakistan accounted for 37% of imports in 2012-15, Canada 27%, China 20%, Japan 5% (including pyrophyllite) and others 11%.

In 2016, talc imports were 385,000 tonnes - 134,750 tonnes from China, 130,900 tonnes from Pakistan, 100,100 tonnes from Canada and the rest from other countries (see figure 7)

The USGS reports that more than 75% of imports were used in cosmetics, paint, and plastics applications based on high-quality talc, the USGS estimates. Including imported talc, the US end-use rankings were thought to be (in decreasing order by tonnage): plastics, ceramics, paint, paper, roofing, rubber, cosmetics and others. 

Imports in 2016 increased by 42% from China and 15% from Pakistan from 2015. Imports from China were nearly 250% higher than those in 2014. Canada and Mexico remained primary destinations for US talc shipments, receiving nearly 70% of exports.

US talc production increased for three consecutive years prior to 2016 while apparent consumption has increased for four consecutive years, USGS talc specialist Daniel Flanagan reported in January. Still, production and apparent consumption in 2016 were still about 38% and 19% lower respectively than in 1995. 

Several domestic talc markets have declined over this roughly 20-year period, with the largest decreases in ceramics (where talc use fell by an estimated 55%), paint (44%), cosmetics (43%), and paper (39%) industries. 

Ceramic tile and sanitaryware formulations and the technology for firing ceramic tile changed, reducing the amount of talc required for the manufacture of some ceramic products. Many domestic ceramic tile manufacturing plants also closed, a result of higher tile imports, prompting major domestic producer Vanderbilt to stop mining talc in 2008. 

For paint, the industry shifted its focus to the production of water-based paint - a product for which talc is not well suited because it is hydrophobic - from oil-based paint to reduce volatile emissions. Paper manufacturing decreased from the 1990s and some talc used for pitch control was replaced by chemical agents. For cosmetics, manufacturers of body dusting powders shifted some of their production from talc-based to corn-starch-based products.

In contrast, sales of domestic talc for plastics rose by an estimated 85% from 1995 to 2016, primarily the result of increased use in automotive plastics, although imports from China, Pakistan and Canada covered a significant share of the increased demand. The paper industry has traditionally been the largest consumer of talc worldwide, although plastics are likely to overtake paper as the predominant end-use within the next several years because Asian papermakers are making greater use of talc substitutes - GCC and PCC - and while the use of talc in automobile plastics increases.

In 2016, US industrial output of paint, coatings and adhesives increased by 7%. Production of motor vehicles and parts grew by 5%; housing starts rose by 4%; manufacture of rubber products increased slightly; and output of paper of paper and plastics each declined slightly from the previous year.

If this trend is sustained, consumption of talc could grow owing to its use in manufacturing catalytic converter bodies for automobiles (ceramics), automotive body and underhood components (plastics) and construction products such as adhesives, caulk, coatings, joint compounds, paint and roofing products.

Figure 8: Location of main talc deposits of Nangarhar province,
Afghanistan 
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Source: USGS and Ian Wilson 

Afghanistan and Pakistan

Afghanistan and Pakistan have grown significantly over the last six years as major suppliers for high-quality talc markets. In 2016, Pakistan produced an estimated 113,500 tonnes and Afghanistan 400,000 tonnes or more. 

Much of the talc mined in Afghanistan is exported in lumps to Pakistan, where it is shipped on to the US, Europe, Saudi Arabia, South America and Asia (including China). Some talc is processed in Karachi and is exported in containers.

Afghanistan

The main deposits of talc in Afghanistan are located in Nangarhar province at Khogyani and Sherzad, with other deposits at Shinwar, Achin and Dih Bala (Figure 8). 

One of the highest-quality deposits are in Khogyani, where talc is found in bands within dolomite (Figure 9) and also mined underground (Figure 10). Another deposit is in Shinwar, with talc associated with magnesite. Chemistry, trace element, mineralogy and brightness details of the Khogyani and Shinwar talc are shown in Table 4, with both showing low iron and calcium levels suitable for high-quality polymers and technical ceramics.

Locals have extracted talc and exported it to Pakistan and thereafter to other countries, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) reported in June. 

In Afghanistan, minerals belong to the state and mining activity can occur with a contract issued on behalf of the state by the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum (MoMP). Royalties are negotiated for each contract and are required to pay tax in accordance with the country’s income tax law. The MoMP is responsible for monitoring royalty payments whereas corporate tax is controlled by the Afghanistan Revenue Department, with export and fees handled by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MoCI). 

Many private companies that received licences for talc extraction extracted more talc that the terms of their licenses, underpaid the government and made payments to the Taliban, the USIP reported. Mine operators in Sherzad district reportedly pay $10 to local officials per ton of talc and $12 to the Taliban. Any private company operating a talc mine needs to pay "rent" to the Taliban and reportedly in some cases to ISIS as well.

In response to a Le Monde report that Imerys was receiving Afghan talc from Nangarhar that was being exported to via Pakistan, Imerys said in a press release on February 13 last year that that none of its talc operations are based in Afghanistan and Pakistan but that it buys ore from external suppliers to supplement production from its own mines.

Imerys imports talc from Afghanistan and Pakistan through a single supplier with whom it has developed an exclusive relationship lasting five years. Imerys’ share of talc imports from Pakistan (including talc from Afghanistan) represents less than 1% of its annual talc sales; Imerys produces 1.5 million tpy. 

Concerned about the uncontrolled exploitation of talc and associated funds going to the Taliban, the Afghan government declared a blanket ban on the extraction and export of talc in 2015, causing a sudden disruption of supply across the border and a build-up of talc stocks in Nangarhar.

According to an MoMP official who personally inspects stocks of talc, about 375,000 tonnes accumulated in Sherzad district alone. According to the USIP, the stockpile peaked as high as 750,000 tonnes after the ban 

Under pressure from downstream purchasers to continue to supply high-quality Afghan talc, interested parties reportedly had to pay to arrange a one-time permit to export 100,000 tonnes. Subsequently, foreign and Afghan talc trader’s reportedly exported talc well in excess of the permitted amount. 

Despite the ban, talc extraction continued in Sherzad, Khogyani and Achin. Senior officials of the provincial mining department admit that most of the talc-rich districts of Nangarhar have come under the influence of the Taliban or ISIS; both may even have started to engage in direct extraction of talc in the Sherzad district. In the Achin district, ISIS reportedly took control of talc and was directly extracting and selling it to traders.

Amin Karimzai, part of Karimzai Group of Jalalabad, is the largest talc producer in Afghanistan and owns the majority of the high-quality talc mining areas in Nangarhar province, with reported production of 400,000 tonnes in 2013 from Khogyani.

Amin Karimzai has a joint venture with HZM Marmi e Pietre of Pakistan to produce, process and distribute the material overseas. HZM Marmi e Pietre also owns talc mining leases in Pakistan. 

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Figure 9: White talc with banded dolomite, Khogyani deposit,
Nangarhar, Afghanistan.
Waqar Mahmood, Capri Corn Minerals, Pakistan
 

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Figure 10: White talc from underground mine, Khogyani,
Nangarhar, Afghanistan.
Waqar Mahmood, Capri Corn Minerals, Pakistan 

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Pakistan

Pakistan has deposits of high-grade talc in the Sherwan, Hazara, Jamrub, Koream Agency, Sefed Kom and Landi Kotalis areas in the Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province bordering Afghanistan. 

Production in Pakistan, according to the USGS, was 121,800 tonnes in 2010, 114,100 tonnes in 2011, 110,000 tonnes in 2012, 93,214 tonnes in 2013 and 70,000 tonnes in 2014. Exports of talc far exceed production - the majority is re-exported material from Afghanistan (See Table 5). 

Capri Corn Minerals, one of Pakistan’s producers, deals mainly in mainly lump talc (grades: Butter, A, Rose, B and C). It exported 31,037 tonnes in 2015, 26,166 tonnes in 2016 and 18,813 tonnes in 2017,

Capri Corn has a joint venture with Turkish company Gülmer Madencilik called Gülmer Capri Corn (Pvt) Ltd - Gülmer holds 60% and Capri Corn the other 40% - that produces talc powders at a plant in Karachi. Most of the talc is supplied from the Khogyani deposit in Nangarhar, Afghanistan.

The process is a ball mill with aluminium lining and aluminium balls especially designed for grinding talc. The plant runs on a two-shift 20 hour day. Output is dependent on the particle size distribution. For 75µm, output will be 50 tonnes per day and for 20µm output will be 24 tpd. A view of the processing plant is shown in Figure 11. Technical data for Gülmer Capri Corn (Pvt) products are shown in Table 6. The company currently exports to Spain, Poland and Jordan. 

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Figure 11: Gülmer Capri Corn (Pvt) Ltd plant, Karachi

Figure 12: Exports of talc lump and powder from China,
2006-2017 (metric tonnes) 
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Source: Chinese Customs and Professor Wen Lu, China 

Figure 13: Exports of talc lumps and powder from China from
2006-2017 (% ) 
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Source: Chinese Customs and Professor Wen Lu, China 

Figure 14: Export fob China price of lump and powder talc in
2006-2017 ($/tonne) 
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Source: Chinese Customs and Professor Wen Lu, China 

Figure 15. Exports of lump talc to the US, Japan, Taiwan,
Slovenia and others over 2010-2017 
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Source: Chinese Customs and Professor Wen Lu, China 

China

Production of talc in China in 2016 was 1.8 million tonnes, accounting for 27% of global production in 2016. China had held the leading position in the world market for more than 50 years until 2010 when white talc exports from Afghanistan and Pakistan emerged started to increase rapidly.

Exports from Afghanistan and Pakistan rose to 207,000 tonnes in 2012 and to 502,000 tonnes in 2013 from 29,000 tonnes in 2010. They retreated to 385,000 tonnes in 2014.

During this period, Chinese export quotas, customs duty, increased labour costs as well as taxes and changes in recent years raised the costs of exports significantly - Chinese talc lump prices were higher 20-30% higher than the world market in 2016. 

China has since ended its quota system and dropped a 10% tax on exports.

The proportion of talc lump in Chinese exports has decreased markedly from 2006 to 2015. After a spike in 2016 - probably due to difficulties in exports from Pakistan and Afghanistan because of the ban on mining talc - Chinese talc lump exports fell again in 2017. 

China’s export fob price of lump climbed to $236 per tonne in 2016 from $121 per tonne in 2006 before dropping to $211 per tonne in 2017. 

China’s main export markets for talc are the US, Japan and Taiwan (see figure 15). 

Detailed figures of tonnage, value and average price ($/tonne) are show in Table 7 for talc lump and Table 8 for talc powder. 

China imported 16,209 tonnes of talc lump in 2017, with North Korea accounting for 11,760 tonnes and Pakistan 3,724 tonnes of that total.

Imports of talc powder in 2017 were 50, 857 tonnes, of which 10,808 tonnes came from the US, 8,427 tonnes from Pakistan, 7,363 tonnes from South Korea, 7,070 tonnes from the Netherlands, 6,027 tonnes from Austria, 4,324 tonnes from France, 1,813 tonnes from Finland and 1,370 tonnes from Japan.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Professor Wen Lu (Chengdu, China), Daniel M. Flanagan, (Talc specialist, USGS), Waqar Mahmood of Capri Corn Minerals, Pakistan Customs, Liu Xiangrong (CCCMC, China), Dr Jia Ziuhuang (China), Chinese Customs, Roskill, Industrial Minerals and others.

*As can be seen from Table 5 Export figures from Pakistan were high, but much of the talc came from Afghanistan.  So 400,000 tonnes have been included.   The USGS does not include Afghanistan figures.  But figures from Roskill and Pakistan Customs shows the large amounts exported, with the majority of the talc coming from Afghanistan.

** Note: Ceramics includes automotive catalytic converters

Some leading companies

Imerys Talc has mines and processing plants with combined capacity of 1.5 million tonnes per year. Mines are situated in the North America, the largest at Yellowstone (Montana), Argonaut (Vermont) and Penhorwood (Ontario), Three Springs (Western Australia), Trimouns (l’Ariège, France), Rabenwald and Kleinseistritz (Austria), and Rodoretto (Italy). The reserves reported by Imerys at the end of 2016 were in Americas (59%), Europe (31%) and Asia (10%).

Mondo Minerals is the world’s second largest company, with capacity of 780,000 tpy. It has two deposits at Sotkamo and Vuomos in Finland. 

IMI Fabi is an Italian company that currently supplies high-quality talc products globally. It has operations in Europe, the Americas and Asia Pacific with estimated capacity of 400,000 tpy.

In Europe, IMI Fabi has talc deposits in Italy at Valmelenco (north of Sordio) and at Sa Matta and Su Venosa in Sardinia. In 2017, IMI-FABI acquired Sibelco’s talc operations located in Uikhoven, Belgium, now known as IMI Fabi Uikhoven. 
In Asia IMI Fabi has an operation in China - Aihai IMI Minerals Co Ltd in Haicheng, Liaoning province. This is a joint venture with Aihai Talc. IMI Fabi Australia Pty Ltd has a mine and processing plant at Mount Seabrook, Western Australia. The deposit is a pure and lamellar talc; a new plant, based on new sorting technologies, will enable production of more than 100,000 tpy. 

IMI Fabi acquired 50% of the Mount Seabrook mine in 1996 and the remaining 50% in 2011. IMI Fabi has a joint venture with Omar Associates Pvt Ltd (IMI Omar Ptv Ltd) based in Karachi, Pakistan for the exploration, processing and export of talc with some destine for IMI Fabi’s processing plants in the US and elsewhere. IMI Fabi Asia Sales and Marketing office is based in Singapore. 

In North America, IMI Fabi LLC has two processing plants, which largely utilize imported talc, at Benwood in West Virginia and Diana in New York. In 2016 IMI Fabi acquired the Magnesita talc mine and plant for $55 million. 

Magnesita produces around 1.5 million tpy of talc lump from the Cabeaceiras mine, which has reserves of 11 million tonnes. The operation produced around 44,000 tpy talc for filler and other markets generated $14 million in revenue.