A visitor to California’s Mojave Desert in the
late 19th century might have been impressed by the spectacle of
20-strong teams of mules hauling wagonloads of borax ore
hundreds of kilometers out of the sweltering heat of Death
On the other side of the world, that same observer might have
witnessed trains of camels with loads of the same material
strapped to their backs, trudging slowly across the deserts
of the western Anatolian peninsula.
Almost a century and a half later, with over three-quarters
of the global market between them, the descendants of these two
operations together dominate the global market for borates
– an umbrella term of boron-based minerals used in
everything from glass to fertilizers to nuclear
US Borax, now part of the mineral division of Anglo-American
miner Rio Tinto, operates out of Boron, California, while Eti
Maden (trading globally as Eti Mine) controls all borate
deposits across Turkey.
These two companies – chiefly through two
particular mines, Boron and Kirka, respectively –
tower over the modern borates industry.
Many of the boron-based day-to-day items people make use of
across the world - Pyrex glass used in cooking, detergents used
in washing and even some cancer treatments - are likely to owe
their existence to material mined by one of these
"They’re the two biggest in the world. Nothing
can compete. The two lions," says Jerry Aiken, a geologist and
veteran of the industry who spent three decades at US
The dominance of these two giants has kept the market, and
its prices, relatively stable through the years, though some
worry that the industry’s over-reliance on these
two sources leaves it open to potential shocks.
And, with so much of the market captured by these players,
newcomers are reticent to enter, leaving exploration at a
|Figure 1: Global borates reserves ('000
A tale of two miners
The two companies are very different.
US Borax dates its existence back to various operations that
started in 1872, extracting borates from
California’s Death Valley. It came into being in
its modern guise in 1956, when the Pacific Coast Borax Co
merged with the US Potash Corp. It was subsequently acquired by
Rio Tinto in 1967. It has conducted operations at Boron since
Eti Maden was established as Etibank in 1935 on the orders
of Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s first president, to
finance the young country’s mining industry,
unifying much of Turkey’s natural resources. It
shed its banking element in 1998, becoming Eti Holding, before
adopting its current moniker in 2004. It distributes globally
as Eti Mine.
For much of latter part of the 20th century, US Borax had a
firm grip on the borates market, taking full advantage of
Rio’s global network.
"When I started, Borax had 70% of the total market because
they had access to the international market through Rio.
Especially the fledgling Asian market," says Aiken.
"As time went on, Eti and the Turks realized they
didn’t have the greatest marketing infrastructure
in the world. But they had the largest deposit in the world,"
Eti gradually upped its distribution game and slowly
wrestled the mantle of world’s largest producer
from Rio. In 2005, it officially became the biggest player in
the game, with a 36% market share of borates. Today it holds
How did it achieve this ascent? "By consistent quality and
reliability," notes an Eti Maden spokesperson.
Whereas Rio emphasized its refined products such as boric
acid and 5-mol, Eti’s focus tended to be on
shipping lower quality ores such as colmanite (which makes up
around 70% of Turkish deposits), which it could process and
ship cheaply, allowing it to ramp up its market share.
|A Death Valley borax wagon that would
have been hauled
by a 20-mule team
"It costs as much to transport from the West Coast to the
East Coast [of the US] as it does for the Turks to ship to the
East Coast where all the glass manufacturers are," notes
Stephen Carpenter, another veteran of US Borax, with over three
decades of experience in industrial minerals exploration.
"It has just been a continuous eroding of Rio
Tinto-Borax’s market share. The Turks have got
better at marketing and distributing to Europe and Asia.
They’ve just gotten more sophisticated," he
Today, Eti has ramped up its focus on refined products as
For its part, Rio has reduced its emphasis on its borates
business. While it still holds a large share of the refined
borates market – in 2016 it boasted 38% of global
sales of 5-mol and 26% of boric acid sales – borates
today are a small part of its overall business.
In 2017, borate revenues of $630 million made up just 1.5%
of Rio’s overall take. In contrast, iron ore
brought in almost 30 times this, with gross revenues of $18
The company has moved its focus away from industrial
minerals generally. In 2008, the company shut its
California-based exploration office.
Rio sought to sell off its borate business between 2007 and
2009, but its divestment efforts ultimately floundered in 2009,
when the company canceled the sale, rejecting bids for Boron as
being too low.
Contract disputes with miners in 2010 led to a worker
lockout. Budgets were cut in 2010 and again 2011.
Rio declined to answer questions for this piece, including
in relation to their future commitment to the borate industry.
An Eti spokesperson, commenting on Rio’s pivot
away from industrial minerals, said the move
"doesn’t mean anything to us."
While Boron has a few decades left in it yet, it is
approaching its twilight years. But investing in the site could
lengthen its lifespan.
Vast stockpiles of colmanite and ulexite at the site, for
example, could be processed into saleable product. But this
would require a new plant and Rio’s focus is
"It just doesn’t fit Rio’s
strategy anymore," says Carpenter. "At Boron, they are happy to
hold on, but not to invest in the future."
|Borates are loaded for shipment out of
While it is now Eti in the driving seat, rather than Rio,
the market remains a duopoly, with the two companies still
holding over 75% of the market share between them.
This level of market concentration carries a degree of
"If something major happens in Turkey, affecting shipping
out of Bandirma, it would throw the borate market into a
tether," says Aiken.
"If you were to close either of those two mines [Boron or
Kirka] – by hook or by crook, you’re
looking at an issue," he adds. "That’s why I say
this is a unique industry. If you only had two copper mines
left people would panic."
The past year has seen heated confrontations between the
Turkish authorities and the European Union, prompting worries
that the market could be affected. But this remains unlikely,
with borate supply hugely important to economies on both
Eti Maden remains unfazed: "We know that this is between the
[European authorities] and the industry and we are happy to see
that it is well recognized by the [authorities] that borates
are important for the European economy."
That said, the industry is unlikely to diversify any time
soon. Control by these two giants, coupled with the difficulty
of finding quality new resources means exploration is
This is no cause for alarm. At current consumption levels,
world resources are adequate for the foreseeable future,
according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
What little exploration is currently happening in the market
is focused on Serbia.
Despite its decreased focus on Boron, Rio has invested quite
heavily in a lithium-borates project in northwest Serbia called
Jadar. The mine is based on a newly discovered mineral called
jadarite (which coincidentally holds a very similar chemical
composition to the mythical kryptonite of Superman
|Figure 2: Borate production by
|Source: Eti Maden
|Figure 3: Global borates market -
|Source: Eti Maden,
|Figure 4: Borates consumption by
|Source: Eti Maden,
|Figure 5: Borates consumption by
|Source: Eti Maden,
Driven by the Serbian government’s
use-it-or-lose it diktat, Rio has invested heavily in Jadar in
recent years, with $90 million spent as of July 2017. While
interest in the site is focused more on its lithium carbonate
production potential, should the project be brought to
fruition, it could contribute substantial boric acid to the
market as a by-product.
A Canadian junior firm, Erin Ventures, is also conducting
borates exploration work in Serbia, at its Piskanja project,
near the Kosovo border. The company forecasts (perhaps
optimistically) around 5% market penetration upon completion,
but it remains at the early stages.
Meanwhile, British AIM-listed Bacanora Minerals, which had
been exploring at its Magdalena borates project in
Mexico’s Sonora province, has ceased
borates-related investment to focus on lithium exploration in
"Ensuring there is a level of diversity in the market in
terms of sources of supply is certainly important," says David
Hall, business development manager at Orocobre, which owns
He adds: "The number of quality boron resources globally is
relatively small; however, the operations in production
typically have large high-quality resources, long mine life and
Borax Argentina – which operates out of northwest
Argentina and supplies much of the South American borates
market – is itself currently in the final stages of a
feasibility study for an expansion project "in order to grow in
line with expected market growth and provide more scale to the
Lacking the scale of the big two, the company says it must
focus its efforts on quality products, unique product offerings
For its part, Eti has no exploration plans for now. "Having
three-fourths of the overall world reserves, Eti Maden does not
involve [itself] with any exploration work for borates
currently," says its spokesperson.
"As we are working very closely with the majority of the key
downstream users, we are able to monitor the pulse of the
sector very well and organize our production levels," he
Global borate reserves – and production –
are concentrated across four regions globally: Turkey, the US,
South America and East Asia (See Figures 1 and 2).
In South America, other than Orocobre, Chile’s
Quiborax and Peru’s Inkabor also produce material.
Lithium major Sociedad Quimica y Minera (SQM) pulled out of the
borates game some time ago.
In the US, outside of Rio’s operations,
Indian-owned Searles Valley Minerals also produces borates.
Various salt lakes in China also contribute varying
low-quality tonnages, most of which is consumed domestically,
with small quantities sent north to Russia. The Chinese have
traditionally been quite protective of their borate production.
Borates extraction is protected due to its military uses
– super hard borohydrides can be used in hardening in
missiles and satellites.
The Russians used to mine borates south of Vladivlastock,
but this was never a particularly economic
However, all of these regions pale in comparison to Turkey,
which holds by far the greatest share of global reserves. 2018
USGS figures indicate the country holds 86% of global reserves,
though Eti Maden – which controls all of the
country’s reserves – puts this figure
slightly lower at around 75%.
Most Turkish borate mines are colemanite operations (See
Box), though Kirka is the largest tincal mine in the world.
|An Eti Maden borate pentahydrate
production facility at Kirka.
While supply sources may be limited in number, on the demand
side end markets for borates number in the hundreds. And they
Of the more than 300 applications in which borates are
currently used, the vast majority of consumption occurs in
glass, fertilizers, ceramics and detergents (See Figure 4).
Glass remains the primary destination for borates produced
today, accounting for some 51% of global consumption.
Fiberglass makes up the majority of this – the most
common variant being e-glass, used in electronics.
Borosilicate glass makes up the other significant chunk of
glass-based demand, where borates strengthen the glass and
ensure its resistance to thermal shock. Corning’s
Pyrex product is a well-known example.
In agriculture, which accounts for 15% of the market,
borates are used in fertilizers to prevent boron-deficiencies
in crops. As this is something all major crops are susceptible
to, borates form a key part of all fertilization programs.
There is no substitute, according to analysis done by Canadian
research group Stormcrow Capital Ltd, with the only alternative
to boron usage for farmers being to allow yield per hectare to
fall as a result of boron deficiency.
The third major market, ceramics, which represents 12% of
global demand, makes heavy use of borates through boron nitride
and boron carbide. In its hexagonal form, boron nitride is used
as a graphite-replacement in lubricants and in cosmetics. In
its cubic form, it can be used as an insoluble alternative to
diamond in grinding steels and other ferrous metals.
Boron carbide, which is softer, but simpler and less
expensive to create, is used in applications including
abrasives and ballistic armor.
Detergents and bleaches have historically also been a key
end-market, currently accounting for around 3% of demand. But
the abundance of alternative chemicals make it highly
substitutable in this market.
Other important uses include nuclear reactors, where
boron’s ability to absorb thermal neutrons, allows
it to be used both as a structural material within a reactor
and as a "neutron poison" for speedy reactor
|Borax Argentina’s pit at
This composition of end-markets means growth in borates
demand tends to be tied to growth of the global economy
– increasing at levels roughly equal to or just above
Growth over the past half-decade has been around 5%,
according to Orocobre, driven primarily by agriculture in the
Americas and Asia and borosilicate glass in China.
In the coming years it will range 2-5% globally.
The current upturn in the global economy is expected to
speed demand growth, with the recovery of the North American
housing market in particular spurring a need for insulation
fiberglass. Orocobre and Borax Argentina will be carefully
watching the expansion of the Brazilian economy.
Demand should also be fueled by more stringent building
standards in Europe and the developing world in terms of heat
conservation, notes the USGS. This is likely to push up
consumption of fiberglass insulation.
Rio has traditionally pointed to three key pillars driving
demand in the borates market: urbanization, energy and food
Urbanization causes the middle class to swell, driving up
demand for boron-based goods such as the glazed ceramics used
in buildings or liquid crystal display (LCD) televisions and
electronics which contain borosilicate glass and textile
In energy, growing demand for insulation drives fiberglass
– and thus borate –demand. And as populations
swell, the requirement for ever-greater crop yields pushes up
demand for borates used in fertilizers.
Africa is fast becoming a target for producers –
driven especially by the first and third of these categories.
Growing economies are pushing demand in glass and, especially,
"Nowadays, the rising star is Africa," says Eti
Maden’s spokesperson, noting that East Asia also
has been a particularly attractive target consumer for the past
A booming economy has seen Asia become the largest consumer
of borates globally (See Figure 5), and its economy continues
But as well as pushing ever-greater tonnages into the
current staple markets, producers are consistently looking to
ways to create further markets.
Eti Maden is specifically focusing its efforts on thin film
transistor (TFT) technology, used in LCD technology.
A spokesperson for the company also flags work to create new
products and markets in areas including chemical synthesis,
agriculture, light-weight materials, flame-retardant
formulations, metallurgy, construction materials, windmills,
aerospace, and automotive industries.
Rio too has long been working with downstream customers to
develop new uses for its products. In areas such as paper and
pulp treatment, they have been looking at ways to use borates
to replace more corrosive chemical treatments.
Wood treatment, where borates can be used to counter termites
and pests, is a growing market.
Boron neutron capture therapy (BNCT) is a novel targeted
radiotherapy, where boron – which is a neutron
absorber – can be used as a "capture agent" in cancer
Orocobre, too, is investigating new applications, though the
company declined to expand on these given their early stages of
The twenty-mule teams at Boron have long been retired
(trains took over at the beginning of the twentieth century).
But, as new markets continue to open up, innovation by
producers of borates continues apace.
While there are 250 known borate minerals, just 11 of these
can be economically mined.
Of these, four calcium and sodium borates make up 90% of the
- Borax / Tincal