What are industrial minerals?

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Why are industrial minerals so important?
The mine to market supply chain

Industrial minerals may be defined as minerals mined and processed (either from natural sources or synthetically processed) for the value of their non-metallurgical properties, which provides for their use in an extremely wide range of industrial and domestic applications.  As a general rule, they can also be defined as being non-metallic, non-fuel minerals.

Obvious examples of naturally occurring industrial minerals include:

  • clays
  • sand
  • talc
  • limestone
  • gypsum
  • pumice
  • potash
Other examples of natural industrial minerals include minerals that also have a metallurgical as well as non-metallurgical value, such as:

  • bauxite (aluminium metal + bauxite used in cements, abrasives, refractories & alumina source for many applications)
  • chromite (chrome metal & ferrochrome alloy + foundry sand, chemicals, pigments)
  • rutile (titanium metal + white pigment for paints, paper, plastics)
  • zircon (zirconium metal + source of zirconia for ceramics, glass)
  • manganese (manganese metal + source of manganese dioxide for batteries, pigments)
  • stibnite (antimony metal + source of antimony trioxide used as flame retardant)
  • quartz (silicon metal + source of silica in glass, ceramics, fillers).
There are also synthetic industrial minerals, which are manufactured from natural minerals. Synthetic minerals are often processed owing to the inferior characteristics and/or scarcity of  their natural counterparts.

For example, mullite does occur naturally – in small quantities on the Isle of Mull for example – but commercial grades are produced by calcining certain bauxites and/or high alumina clays.

Corundum, is the natural mineral of alumina, but little is mined. Commercial grades of alumina are yielded from the Bayer processing of bauxite, and fused alumina from the electrofusing of bauxite or alumina.

Other synthetic industrial minerals include:
  • silicon carbide – from quartz + petroleum coke
  • fused minerals – by fusing the natural varieties, eg. fused alumina, fused magnesite,
  • precipitated calcium carbonate – lime + carbon dioxide
  • spinel – from magnesia (from magnesite) and alumina (from bauxite)
  • soda ash – from the Solvay process, salt+limestone+coal+ammonia

Why are industrial minerals so important?

Quite frankly, without industrial minerals, a vast range of everyday domestic and vital industrial products would just not exist. In an average 9-5 working day you will probably come into contact with at least 100 items that have been manufactured from industrial minerals.

A useful example is a quick examination of your home kitchen to see just how important industrial minerals are to our everyday environment. Industrial minerals in your kitchen:

Glass/glasses/ light bulbs   silica sand, limestone, soda ash, borates, feldspar, lithium
Ceramic tiles/mugs/ plates etc.   kaolin, feldspar, talc, wollastonite, borates, alumina, zirconia

TiO 2 , kaolin, mica, talc, wollastonite, GCC, silica

Plastic “white goods” eg. fridge, washer   talc, GCC, kaolin, mica, wollastonite, flame retardants (ATH, Mg(OH) 2 )
Wooden flooring   treatment materials- borates, chromite
Drinking water   treatment materials- lime, zeolites
Wine/beer   diatomite, perlite filters
Salt   salt
Sugar   lime in processing
Detergents/soap   borates, soda ash, phosphates
Surfaces   marble, granite
Books   kaolin, talc, GCC, lime, TiO 2 in paper
Oven glass   petalite, borates
Heating elements   fused magnesia insulators
Wallboard/plaster   gypsum, flame retardants
Metal pots/cutlery   mineral fluxes & refractories in smelting
Cat litter   sepiolite, bentonite, attapulgite

Certain industrial minerals may have one, two, or maybe up to ten domestic and/or industrial applications, others such as lime, may have over 50 uses. The main consuming mineral market sectors which require industrial minerals as raw materials may be summarised as:

Drilling mud
  Flame retardants
Synthetic fibers

In essence, wherever there is demand for these industrial and domestic applications, i.e. a market, this will create a trading business specific to that market. The crucial point is that the pattern of industrial minerals trade is utterly dictated by the needs of the population and the performance of the economy, and then combined with mineral availability.

As an industrial minerals consultant once said: “Without a market, an industrial mineral deposit is merely a geological curiosity”. So, put simply, no market demand = no mineral development = no mineral trade.

Mineral consuming market existence and its performance directly affects demand, and therefore trade, for mineral raw materials

The route of a mineral from mine to market may involve more than one stage, i.e. its consumption in manufacturing an intermediate mineral or end product, which is then consumed in the manufacture of another end product, which is then sold to an end-use market.

Many industrial minerals can serve a range of markets, which also impacts the pattern of minerals trade in that a single mineral source can supply several different customers owing to market type, as well as market geography.

For example, bentonite sourced in Wyoming travels to domestic and overseas population centres owing to its widespread use as an absorbent in cat litter products. However, its equally important use as a major component in drilling fluids means that it is also freighted to centers of oil and gas drilling activity, eg. Gulf of Mexico.

Examples of the variety of uses of industrial minerals:

Industrial minerals are not only important to us because of their uses, they are also responsible for employing people and services, and thus have value in that capacity.

The mine to market supply chain

The best way to see who is involved in the industrial minerals business is to examine the mine to market supply chain.

All industrial minerals are mined (surface and underground) and then undergo processing to refine the crude mineral ore into a processed grade or series or grades for sale to the market. These are then transported from the source to another plant for further processing, or directly to the consuming markets. One can identify three broad sectors:

  • supply sector
  • logistics sector
  • consuming market sector
Within each of these sectors are subsectors that have specific functions in the supply chain and employ certain types of businesses. Other key notes to highlight are the activities and objectives of the main players in the industrial minerals market:

  • Mineral producers seek to maintain current markets and diversify into new markets
  • Mineral producers/processors seek to employ/develop new processing methods to produce superior products economically for new market applications
  • Traders and consuming market mineral buyers seek to source low cost, high quality minerals & alternative/new suppliers
  • Freight/logistics costs can amount to 50-70% of delivered cost of mineral to customer, therefore suppliers and customers strive to secure most cost effective and efficient logistics systems and companies
Just to make matters interesting, the mine to market supply route will be tailor-made to suit different mineral types for different markets!