A capacity crowd gets an essential perspective on this critical mineral
by Greg Klein
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Since 2001 Industrial Minerals’ annual Fluorspar Conference has been touring the globe, bringing together producers and consumers of this widely used but apparently obscure commodity. What might distinguish this year’s Vancouver event, however, was the October 22 pre-conference workshop, which attracted over 200 potential investors. As the keynote speakers explained, fluorspar now tops the list of critical minerals and it’s irreplaceable in most of its uses. Shortages threaten unless new deposits are found and developed—and that, the audience heard, is exactly what some Canadian juniors are doing already.
Given the commodity’s low public profile, a quick Fluorspar 101 was presented by Simon Moores, a writer and Manager of Industrial Minerals Data for the authoritative journal Industrial Minerals. Miners report fluorspar (also known as fluorite) in percentages of calcium fluoride or CaF2. It can be processed into either of two grades. Metspar, or metallurgical grade, is widely used in steel making as well as ceramics and glass. About 60% of fluorspar production is acidspar, or acid grade, which starts at 97% CaF2 and is the most widely used, highly desired and expensive product, largely due to its use in hydrofluoric (HF) acid, one of the world’s most widespread industrial chemicals. “It’s the underlying and only feedstock raw material that feeds all these much, much higher-value products that some of the biggest industrial chemicals companies make,” says Moores. The list of applications goes on, but some of the most common include the coolants essential to refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners.
For most of its applications, fluorspar has no substitute. While North American chemical giants rank among the world’s consumers, neither Canada nor the U.S. currently mines fluorspar.
Last year’s global production came to 6.3 million tonnes, with a drop projected for this year, Moores says. But as in other critical commodities, China looms large. “It produces 58%,” he says. “This has risen from 51% in 2006.” Although China’s not the biggest consumer of the high-value products, it’s the biggest end-user in the fluorspar production chain. “They’re decreasing fluorspar exports, they’ve also got resource taxes in place, so fluorspar is on their radar. Although it’s earlier days than graphite, ‘control’ is the underlying word for China’s approach.”
By factoring in the country risk of fluorspar producers, Moores points out, the EU assigns the mineral higher risk than graphite, lithium, cobalt, vanadium, molybdenum, tantalum, copper, zinc and titanium.
Although fluorspar prices have dropped a bit since January, “over 12 years it’s been price increase over price increase over price increase,” Moores says. “There was a 225% increase for acidspar between 2005 and 2012.”
Jon Hykawy, Head of Global Research, Clean Technologies and Materials Analyst at Byron Capital Markets offered some future projections. “We see very significant growth by 2017,” he says. “A large portion of that growth is in metallurgical applications, but more so in chemical applications. We see a very, very healthy growth in demand for acidspar, more than the Chinese can supply or other existing projects can supply through expansion.”
Hykawy sees 4% to 4.6% annual growth for basic uses such as catalysts, water fluoridation, glasses and ceramics, fluorine gas and steel manufacture. But the growth in fluorochemicals, he states, will be far more impressive.
“Chlorofluorocarbons [CFCs] were shown to be significant contributors to ozone depletion,” he explains. “It wasn’t the fluorine that was the problem, it was the chlorine.” CFCs were eventually replaced by hydrofluorocarbons [HFCs], a cause of global warming. “The current and best choice, and the chemical of the future, are HFOs, hydrofluoro-olefins—not a particularly more complex chemical, just different,” Hykawy explains. “CFCs are about 15% fluorine by weight, HFCs came in about 60% and HFOs about 67% fluorine by weight. So as you have a global economy that’s growing and increasingly using refrigerants, you also have an increasing proportion of fluorspar.”
As for fluoropolymers, “the one most of us knows is DuPont’s Teflon. It’s ubiquitous because it’s highly chemically and thermally stable. You can put it in frying pans, heat the bejeezus out of them and it doesn’t break down,” he says.
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