Antimony isn’t generally considered to be one of the more interesting minor metals. While it has cropped up on several critical raw materials lists, owing to the high concentration of its production in China, its key end-use applications (flame retardants and lead-acid batteries) lack the glitz and glamour of aerospace, electric vehicles or solar cells. The market has also been rather dull in recent years: Since 2010, demand has declined, with supply following suit as Chinese mine output reduced. Prices have been on a downward trend since 2011, bottoming out in December 2015. Since then, oversupply has fallen back, and prices have recovered to hover around the US$8,000/t mark.
But, while the last few years have been far from exciting, findings from Roskill’s new Antimony Global Industry, Markets & Outlook 2018 report suggest that there will be some fundamental shifts in the market over the coming decade.
Shift 1: A “self-sufficient” metallurgical market
Antimony consumption is split into metallurgical and non-metallurgical applications. Regarding the former, the biggest end use is lead-acid batteries, while flame retardants is the major non-metallurgical application of antimony. It makes sense to think of the antimony supply chain as consisting of two distinct, yet interrelated, supply chains:
- The first of these, shown at the top of Figure 1, sees primary mined antimony (the sulphide mineral stibnite (Sb2S3) is by far the main economic source exploited), converted into a refined product (the most common is antimony trioxide). Antimony oxides and chemicals are then consumed in non-metallurgical applications, of which flame retardants are the largest end use. There is no well-established commercial recycling of non-metallurgical antimony.
- The second of these, shown at the bottom of Figure 1, sees antimony recovered from spent batteries and other scrap materials, processed into antimonial lead, and consumed mostly in the production of lead-acid batteries. The amount of secondary antimony recovered is not sufficient to meet demand, thus some primary antimony is consumed in metallurgical applications. This is set to change.
Roskill’s forecasts predict that over the period to 2028 the metallurgical supply chain (bottom of Figure 1) will become “self-sufficient”. This shift will see metallurgical demand being satisfied solely by secondary antimonial lead supply by 2025. Thereafter, the requirement for primary mined antimony will be determined only by the market dynamics of non-metallurgical applications, primarily flame retardants.
Shift 2: Enter Polyus
China has been the largest mine producer of antimony for decades although its market share has fallen in recent years. In 2017, it accounted for 66% of the world’s antimony supply, with Tajikistan (11%) and Russia (9%) being the only other sizable producers. Hsikwang Shan Twinkling Star, owned by China Minmetals, and Hunan Gold (both China), Anzob (Tajikistan), and GeoProMining (Russia) have long been the world’s major producers.
But, as of 2018, there is a new player in town. Poluys, the largest gold producer in Russia and a top-10 gold producer globally, announced in March 2018 that its Olimpiada mine and tailings have huge reserves of high-content antimony ore. Polyus has now started selling Au-Sb flotation concentrate to China. In H1 2018, the company produced 13.7kt of antimony. According to Roskill’s 2018 estimates, Polyus may account for 20% of global mine supply in its first year. The sheer scale of Polyus’ output could have a fundamental impact on the market – potentially causing huge levels of oversupply.
Shift 3: A reduction in Chinese dominance?
China is the world’s largest antimony mine, ingot, and oxide producer. It also has by far the world’s largest reserves. However, declining reserves and environmental shutdowns (as well as falling demand) have caused output to fall in China. Chinese mine production declined by 7%py over the 2010 to 2017 period.
China has, in recent years, substituted declining domestic production with increasing imports from international producers (especially Tajikistan, Russia, Australia, and Myanmar) to supply its downstream processing capacity for antimony oxides and antimony ingot. Figure 3 shows current and historic trade routes of antimony ores and antimony intermediate products and highlights China’s central role in the market.
Note: Purple shading represent relative scale of mine production
The future of China’s role in the market is uncertain. It is possible that mine production will continue to decline (Roskill expects this to be the case in 2018), but that ramped up output from Russia will fill the gap in the short-term. Ultimately, China will still remain the centre of the antimony universe, especially for refined production, although its position in the market may be somewhat reduced.
Shift 4: Finally, a new Roaster in Oman?
While developments in China, Russia and Tajikistan are fundamental to the outlook for supply and demand, one project in particular, focussed on refined production rather than primary mine production, could also be important for the development of the antimony sector over the coming years.
Construction of the Oman Antimony Roaster (OAR) is nearing completion as of mid-2018, with a potential to treat approximately 40ktpy of antimony-gold concentrates to produce approximately 20ktpy of antimony metal and antimony trioxide, along with over 50koz of associated gold. The plant, however, needs to secure feedstock to bring the plant into an operational capacity. This could delay the start of production.
The OAR will not impact the global supply and demand dynamics of antimony, as production is based on third-party production material. However, if the OAR is brought online and ramped-up to capacity, the plant will have the potential to replace some Chinese or rest of world (ROW) ingot and trioxide production capacity.
Summary: Interesting times ahead?
After several years in the doldrums, the shifts outlined above could lead to some more interesting times ahead for the antimony market. The market is set to grow, albeit modestly: Roskill’s outlook for demand suggests growth of 0.6%py to 2028, with a 2.1%py growth in demand from non-metallurgical applications offsetting 2.2%py declining demand from metallurgical applications.
There is uncertainty regarding flame retardant demand over the coming years as much depends on future regulatory activity. Regulatory evaluations in Europe and North America, such as those concerning flame retardant formulations or more specific towards antimony trioxide under REACH in the EU, may put pressure on manufacturers to consider substitutions. Outside of Europe and North America, regulatory trends are likely to develop along similar lines and may have a significant impact on global demand but are only expected to become significant over the medium term and beyond.
With demand growth expected to be modest, there is little fear that supply will fail to meet demand. However, the complexion of the antimony supply chain is changing. As noted above, Chinese output is reducing, while Russian output is increasing. The volumes of antimony produced in these two countries over the coming years will have a fundamental impact on the market, the supply-demand balance – and prices.
A report from