World demand for zirconium concentrate is at its lowest point for a decade. Consumers have implemented widespread programmes to reduce their reliance on the opacifier and refractory mineral. Substitution, changing fashions and outright elimination of zircon have all served to reduce its use as consumers have looked to lower their raw material costs. The main driver behind these changes has been zircon price volatility. Between 2010 and 2012, zircon prices more than doubled. In many cases, zircon consumers were unable to pass on increased costs, particularly in the traditional ceramics market.
Production of traditional ceramics such as tiles, sanitaryware and tableware is the largest end market for zircon, in the form of opacifier and flour, at 43% of the total. Milled zircon has seen increased competition from lower cost substitutes such as calcined alumina, feldspar and other aluminosilicate mixes. Technological innovations, such as the double-press method, have also enabled ceramics producers to reduce their zircon consumption substantially. As a result zircon use in ceramics fell by 40% between 2011 and 2013.
Zircon is also widely used in foundries, chemicals and refractories production. While the market saw some substitution in foundry applications such as sand casting, consumption levels in chemicals and refractories have been more resilient and remained strongly linked to overall market trends.
Substitution of zircon in ceramics and foundries is now thought to be complete but whether former consumers will return to the market at the same level remains to be seen. Demand for zircon in ceramics is forecast to grow by 3.9%py to 2019, indicating that 2011 volumes are unlikely to be recovered in the short-term.
Price volatility in the zircon market also appears to have calmed since 2013. Prices in early 2014 continued to decline gently but are forecast to stabilise in the second half of the year, in tandem with the zircon supply/demand balance. Prices and demand are projected to remain at similar levels into 2015, before growth returns to the market in 2016 when buyers’ stockpiles are eliminated.