China becomes net importer of fluorspar, official data confirms

By Michael Greenfield, Michael Greenfield
Published: Wednesday, 13 March 2019

China, the world’s main steel-producing nation, imported almost half-a-million tonnes of fluorspar in 2018, driven by its booming domestic steel market.

Chinese imports of fluorspar trebled year-on-year in 2018 as the nation became a net importer of the material, according to the latest data from the country’s customs authorities.

The data showed that 419,828 tonnes of fluorspar was imported into China during 2018, three times the 140,229 tonnes imported in 2017.

Fluorspar exports from China grew to 202,000 tonnes in 2018, from 184,000 tonnes the year before.

Because of the Chinese boom in steel production over 2018, the majority of this growth in fluorspar imports was likely to be metallurgical grade material, although the Customs data does not distinguish between acid and met grades.

Fluorspar is used as a flux material in steel production.

Exports were steady throughout 2018, peaking at 23,940 tonnes in January. The 12,315 tonnes shipped in March was the lowest single monthly value.

Imports peaked at the end of the year, when 225,000 tonnes of fluorspar, 54% of the year’s total, was brought into China between September and December.

China’s crude steel output grew by 4.6% over the year, according to its National Bureau of Statistics.

This means that Chinese steel producers would have produced an additional 41 million tonnes of steel in 2018 compared with the previous year. The total for 2018 was 894,000 tonnes.

China accounts for roughly half the world’s output of crude steel but its growth in output will fall significantly in 2019, according to forecasts by Fastmarkets research. China’s output of crude steel will grow by 0.8% this year, according to the research, adding around 7 million tonnes to the nation’s total.

This could raise questions over whether China has permanently become a net importer of fluorspar.

The increased output of steel was reflected in metspar prices.

The weekly price assessment for metspar, 90% CaF2, fob China, was $430-460 per tonne on March 7. It was $390-410 per tonne one year earlier.

The price for metspar, 85% CaF2, fob China, was $360-400 per tonne, also assessed on March 7.

The price for 85% CaF2 material was narrowly lower one year ago at $350-370 per tonne, but it was $290-310 per tonne in November 2017.

The last time both prices were as high as their current levels was in 2012.

2019 imports to dip

Fastmarkets is aware of one fluorspar trading house which reported that it had imported around 100,000 tonnes of acid-grade fluorspar in 2018. But that trader’s outlook for 2019 was bleaker because international prices of acidspar had caught up with the high Chinese prices.

The monthly price for acidspar, 97% CaF2, wet filtercake, fob Durban, South Africa, was $450-490 per tonne on February 28.

This was up by 25% from $350-400 per tonne this time last year.

By comparison, Chinese fluorspar averaged a price of $460-527 per tonne over 2018.

The price for acidspar, 97% CaF2, wet filtercake, fob China, was $450-550 per tonne on March 7. The price started the year at $550-580 per tonne.

There was no official data detailing how much aluminium fluoride (AlF3) or hydrofluoric acid (HF) is produced in China. But data presented at Fastmarkets’ latest fluorspar conference - in Johannesburg, South Africa, over September 25-27, 2018 - showed that there was plenty of unused AlF3 capacity in China.

Only 72.5% of China’s capacity for 943,000 tonnes per year was being used.

Weaker demand for AlF3 has caused the price to drop, to around 11,000-11,500 yuan ($1,638-1,712) per tonne, according to sources. This price dropped by 5% in January.

The HF price also recently dropped, to 10,775 yuan per tonne on March 13 from around 14,500 yuan per tonne on December 12, according to commodity data group Sunsirs.

Again, this price was down because of lower demand for refrigerants in China, although demand is down at the moment because it is winter in China.

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