Antimony is mostly consumed in flame retardants and lead-acid batteries. Together these end-uses accounted for 84% of antimony demand in 2017. Consumption trends in these two critical applications for antimony thus shape overall demand dynamics.
In both cases, a similar situation prevails: while overall demand (for flame retardants and lead-acid batteries) has been steadily increasingly, the antimony loading within these applications has been reducing. 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 being used instead of antimonial lead in battery grids for sealed-for-life maintenance-free automotive batteries, also called valve-regulated lead-acid (VRLA) batteries.
Owing in part to these trends, demand for antimony in both non-metallurgical and metallurgical applications has stagnated in recent years. Consumption peaked in 2010 at around 201kt but has since declined year-on-year. Roskill expects that long-term demand for antimony in lead-acid batteries will continue to decline, with tin increasingly used instead of antimony, and lead-acid batteries themselves likely to fall victim to the EV boom over the longer term. While the outlook for construction and plastics is broadly positive, which suggests demand for flame retardants will increase, the future of antimony demand in flame retardants will remain highly sensitive to prices and the regulatory environment. In light of these factors, Roskill expects overall demand to grow at less than 1%py over the period to 2027.
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. In 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”.
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. This would create a situation in which additional feedstock would be required, for supply to meet demand. This would need to be met from an increase in mine output from existing producers or new supply from potential producers. Alternatively, processors might look to utilise the growing surplus of secondary antimony available from antimonial lead although such recovery is not yet typical on a commercial scale.
Global mine supply has been declining in recent years, mostly because of falling demand. However, there are considerable uncertainties over the future of mine production in China, with reports of dwindling reserves, falling grades and mine closures related to environmental inspections. Mine production has fallen from 115kt in 2010 to 80kt in 2017 according to Roskill estimates. Falling Chinese feedstock supply has been partially offset by increases in Tajikistan, Russia, and Australia. Environmental inspections and challenging market conditions have also led to a considerable reduction in Chinese smelter capacity. This could present an opportunity for new entrants into the market, although China will remain the dominant power in the antimony market for the foreseeable future.