Antimony is mostly consumed in flame retardants and lead-acid batteries. Together these end-uses account for more than 80% of antimony demand and trends in these two critical applications thus shape market dynamics.
In both cases, a similar situation prevails: while overall demand (for flame retardants and lead-acid batteries) has been steadily increasing, the antimony loading within these applications has been cut. In flame retardants, this is mainly because of high antimony prices prompting substitution of antimony, and legislative and requirements forcing changes to flame retardant formulas. In batteries, lead-calcium-tin alloys are increasingly used instead of antimonial lead in battery grids for sealed-for-life maintenance-free automotive batteries, also called valve-regulated lead-acid (VRLA) batteries. Other end-uses include plastics and heat stabilizers, ceramics and glass (specifically solar panel glass) and a variety of metallurgical applications.
Consumption of antimony was weak in 2019 and the impact of COVID-19 means that demand will remain sluggish in 2020. Roskill maintains a forecast of 1-2%py growth for non-metallurgical applications over the 2020s, which will be counterbalanced by a decline in metallurgical demand, leading to deceptively steady total demand. However, importantly, Roskill believes the market may soon experience a fundamental shift. Antimony enters the supply chain in two ways: primary mine production, and secondary recovery of antimonial lead. By the mid-2020s, secondary supply from antimonial lead will be sufficient to meet metallurgical demand. As such, little or no primary supply will be required for metallurgical applications, making the metallurgical side of the market effectively “self-sufficient”. As a result, Roskill forecasts that the primary supply of mined antimony will then be entirely underpinned by non-metallurgical applications, specifically flame retardants.
The outlook for non-metallurgical antimony demand is positive when considering construction and plastics trends, which suggests demand for flame retardants will increase. Antimony demand in glass is far smaller but could potentially enjoy high growth rates due to use in photovoltaic panel production. With a modest growth in demand for antimony in non-metallurgical end uses expected, Roskill envisages that demand could start to outstrip current supply levels over the longer term. However, potential additional by-product antimony supply from existing gold producers is likely to keep the market in significant surplus for much of the next decade. In addition, growing secondary supply from antimonial lead will provide a new potential antimony source over the second half of the 2020s. While currently not commercially viable to meet flame-retardant-grade antimony trioxide specifications, processors might look to utilise this growing secondary resource.
Global mine supply declined over much of the 2010s and bottomed out in 2017, mostly tracking falling demand. China has by far the largest antimony resources and has, as a result, been the world’s centre for antimony mine and refined production. While China remains the leading primary producer in 2020, declining reserves, market consolidation and regulatory inspections across China leading to closures of facilities has caused a significant decrease in Chinese output from over 80% of global production in 2010 to around 50% in 2020. As a result, China has sourced growing volumes of primary antimony units through imports.
Russia and Tajikistan are the next largest producers of antimony after China, both ramping up production in recent years to fill the gap left by China and causing global supply to rebound in 2018 and 2019. In 2018, Russian supply of antimony leapfrogged ahead of Tajikistan with Russian company Polyus, one of world’s leading gold producers, supplying by-product antimony from its Olimpiada mine equivalent to 15% of global mined antimony supply.