Antimony enters the supply chain either as a result of mining (primary production) or recycling (secondary production). In both cases, production is spread across six continents with China being the largest producer.
China has by far the largest antimony resources accounted for three-quarters of world mine supply in 2014. The biggest, and most high-grade, deposits are found in southern China, with the largest mines located in Hunan, Guangxi and Yunnan provinces. Chinese production, however, dropped by 1%py over the 2008 to 2014 period, in part because average ore-grades in these provinces have declined. This has had a profound effect on international trade patterns.
Since the turn of the century, trade in antimony ores and concentrates has increased at a considerable rate, as China sourced increasing quantities of concentrate from non-domestic sources. Chinese imports peaked in 2012 at 68.9kt (gross weight), before dropping back in 2013 and 2014. Although Chinese production dropped between 2008 and 2014, world mine production increased at a rate of a 1.8%py over this period, reaching 136.7kt of antimony. This growth was driven by production increases in Tajikistan, Russia, Australia and Bolivia—the four biggest producers outside China. Much of the material produced in these countries is exported to China for refining. However, in H1 2015 there were practically no Russian exports to China—with total Chinese import levels dropping by 34% year-on-year. This suggests that Russian producers are preparing for domestic smelter capacity to become operational.
Antimony is consumed mostly in flame retardants and lead-acid batteries. While demand has increased over the 2008 to 2014 period, it has done so only at 0.9%py. Demand has been sluggish since the global financial crisis, mostly because key markets failed to recover strongly from the downturn. Further, antimony is increasingly being loaded in smaller and smaller amounts in some end-use applications, most notably in certain flame retardant formulations. These factors combined resulted in demand actually declining year-on-year between 2010 and 2014. Asia is the dominant consuming region across both metallurgical and non-metallurgical end uses.
Since H1 2011, prices have gradually declined, owing to oversupply, over capacity, and weak demand in key end-use sectors. Roskill expects the market to remain broadly in balance, although with supply slightly outstripping demand (albeit only by 1-2ktpy) to 2019. China’s continued thirst for raw materials will, in Roskill’s opinion, sustain the period of oversupply on a global level—as producers in Australia, Bolivia, and Myanmar continue to try to realise profits through exports to China. If Russian exports to China do not resume, and/or Tajik exports slow, it will have implications for the Chinese (and, therefore, global) market.