In a tumultuous year for tin, after reaching a seven-year low in the beginning of 2016, prices rebounded sharply, gaining as much as 58% to December, and have continued to trade at prices well above US$19,000/t. After several years of low activity, the increase in prices offers a lifeline to the industry, which has been coping with falling production in many of the largest producing regions, and weak demand owing to falling use of tin in solders.
On the demand side, tin consumption remains dominated by uses in electronic solders. As per capita incomes continue to rise in key markets, the outlook for demand for consumer electronics appears set to soar further still. Nonetheless, demand has, thus far, failed to keep up with the pace, owing to trends towards ever-greater miniaturisation, reducing the use of solders. Such improvements in production techniques have only partially been partially offset by the substitution of tin-lead solders by lead-free, high-tin alternatives, which as of 2016 accounted for as much as 77% of worldwide solder consumption.
The greatest growth potential for tin, instead, is likely to be found in automotive battery applications. Most vehicles today include lead-acid batteries to assist with starting, lighting and ignition functions although these batteries are also used to provide motive power and in industrial applications. Historically, lead-acid batteries have relied on lead-antimony alloys, but the inclusion of tin in low-antimony grids has permitted the development of maintenance-free, valve-regulated lead acid (VRLA) batteries. As of 2016, use of tin in lead-acid batteries approached 30kt and supported by further growth in vehicles sales and the further substitution of antimony, use of tin in this application is expected to exceed 50kt by 2027.
Despite this potential upside to demand, prices have largely been supported not as much by rising consumption, as by declining production. Low prices in 2015 and early 2016 and an uncertain investment climate have meant that many producers have been unable or unwilling to invest in exploration, developing new mines or investing in existing operations.
The exception has been in Myanmar where producers have become the leading suppliers of concentrates in the world. Estimated tin-in-concentrate production in Myanmar rose from 12.8kt in 2013 to 50kt in 2016, virtually all of which is exported to neighbouring China. Exports were supported by government stocks and an investment in processing capacity, which enabled more processing of above-ground stocks. Mine production in Myanmar may have peaked because of declining grades and increasing costs as operations move underground. The import of low-cost concentrate from Myanmar was an important reason for the drop in Chinese production, estimated to have fallen from a high of 175kt in 2014 to less than 127kt in 2016, although this is expected to recover partially as shipments from Myanmar start to decline.
In Peru, production by Minsur has been in long-term decline as grades have become depleted. The company plans to change this and increase tin-in-concentrate production by 8-9ktpy in Peru by 2018, partly through a short-term ore-sorting project. The company also intends to increase production from its Pitinga operation in Brazil where output reached record levels in 2016 and is expected to rise in 2017. In the longer term, Comibol in Bolivia plans to increase concentrate production by more than 20ktpy by 2025. To some degree this depends on securing reliable supplies of water and electricity, shortages of which reduced output in 2016.
Overall, Roskill’s outlook for tin suggests that prices are likely to remain volatile, as the result of the ongoing shift in demand patterns, as well as uncertainty over mine production, and delays in the restart of suspended operations in China, as well as the ramp-up of new projects yet to be commissioned. Roskill’s outlook for consumption suggests moderate growth may be achieved, depending on the outcome of conflicting trends in the electronics industry, and with threats of substitution in applications such as tinplate packaging offset by increasing use lead-acid batteries.
1. Executive summary
2. Tin flowchart
3. World production
4. World consumption
Appendix 1: Properties, occurrences and reserves of tin
Appendix 2: Production of tin by country
Appendix 3: Company profiles
Appendix 4: Tin in lead-acid batteries companies
Appendix 5: Tin in other applications
Appendix 6: Macroeconomic outlook