Fluorspar: An Investment Opportunity?

Fluorspar: An Investment Opportunity?

Fluorspar is an industrial mineral that is composed of calcium fluoride (CaF2), which is made up of 51.1 percent calcium and 48.9 percent fluorine. Fluorspar takes its name from the Latin word “fluo” — which means “flow” — as it lowers the melting point of metal ore and and helps it flow more easily.

Fluorspar occurs in a variety of mineral deposits and is mined either as a main commodity or as a coproduct of metal mining, according to the British Columbia Geological Survey (BCGS). The recovery of fluorspar from metal-type mineral deposits adds to capital and processing costs.

The presence of impurities like silica, ferric oxide, arsenic, phosphorus, lead, zinc and limestone — as well as the texture of the ore — determines the type of concentrate that can be produced.

There are three main types of commercial fluorspar concentrate: ceramic, which is 85 to 96 percent fluorspar; metallurgical — also known as metspar — which is over 80 percent fluorspar and is 10 to 75 mm in size; and acid grade, known as acidspar, which is fine grained and contains over 97 percent fluorspar.

The most important and highest-quality product is acidspar. It is a concentrate that can be obtained from lower-grade deposits or as a by-product of metallic mineral processing. It is upgraded by employing a conventional grinding and flotation process.

An exceptional fluorspar deposit is necessary to produce metallurgical-grade fluorspar as the grade needs to be higher than 80 percent. As a result, fluorspar is sometimes selectively mined. In order to preserve the large size of the fluorspar particles (which have gravel-type characteristics), the ore is crushed and upgraded by hand or by using a heavy media separation circuit. As this type of deposit is quite rare, producers have started to pelletize and briquette sub-acid-grade fluorspar fines as a substitute for gravel-type metallurgical fluorspar.

Ceramic grade fluorspar is fine grained and 85-90% calcium fluoride (No.2 product) or 95-96% calcium fluoride (No.1 product).

Phosphate rock contains 3 to 4 percent fluorine, which is recovered from phosphate mining operations’ tailings ponds in the form of fluorsilicic acid.

Uses

Metspar is used as a flux in the production of steel because it lowers the metal’s melting point and thus provides important energy savings. It represents about 15 percent of the fluorspar market.

Acidspar is used mainly in the production of hydrofluoric acid (HF). The acid is used:

  • to fabricate fluorocarbons (refrigerators), which are used in air conditioners, refrigerators and freezers
  • to manufacture foam products
  • to manufacture integrated circuits and solar panels
  • as a propellant in the production of gasoline
  • to produce fluoropolymers (used in Teflon coatings)
  • in the pickling of stainless steel
  • as a key ingredient in the production of nuclear fuel
  • to produce cryolite, which is used in aluminum smelting
  • to produce the lithium fluoride that is used in batteries
  • to produce sodium fluoride salts for toothpaste
  • in the pharmaceutical industry and in agriculture

Approximately 42 percent of acidspar is used to manufacture fluorocarbons, while 33 percent is converted into cryolite, 16 percent is used in steel pickling, 2 percent is used as a petrochemical catalyst and another 2 percent is used in uranium enrichment, according to Byron Capital Markets.

The BC Geological Survey notes that developed countries transform over 70 percent of fluorspar into HF-related products, while in developing nations over 65 percent of fluorspar goes toward metallurgy. On average, 49 percent of the world’s fluorspar goes into the production of HF (acidspar), 47 percent is used in metallurgy (metspar) and only 4 percent is used as coating for welding rods or in the manufacturing of glass and ceramics.

Some 5 percent of the fluorosilicic acid that is recovered from phosphate mining operations is used in water fluorination. The acid is increasingly converted into cryolite (almost 95 percent) and HF.

Recycling

Between 8,000 and 10,000 tons per year of synthetic fluorspar are recovered from uranium enrichment operations, petroleum alkylation and stainless steel pickling, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS). HF is also recovered from aluminum smelter operations and petroleum alkylation.

Substitutes

Several substitutes are available for fluorspar fluxes. Fluorosilicic acid can act as a substitute for fluorspar and is used in the production of aluminum fluoride and HF.

Market info

Fluorspar is listed as a “critical mineral” by the European Union and the US. How did it get into this trouble in the first place?

For the last several decades, China has been the world’s top fluorspar producer. In the 1980s and 1990s it dumped large quantities of fluorspar on a stagnant market. In the mid-1990s, that fact, coupled with the banning of CFCs — chlorofluorocarbons that were depleting the ozone layer — resulted in depressed fluorspar prices and mine closures around the world.

Subsequently, China morphed into the world’s top manufacturing hub, eventually becoming the world’s largest fluorspar consumer. It began to use its fluorspar reserves to locally produce HF and fluorocarbons, incorporating them into downstream products that could be exported at a premium. Recent figures indicate that China produces 53 percent of the world’s total fluorspar and consumes 52 percent.

The rapid industrialization of the BRIC countries and the reduction of Chinese fluorspar concentrate exports caused the price of fluorspar to increase from $130 per tonne in 2003 to $525 per tonne by 2011.

Struggling to cover its needs, China started limiting its fluorspar exports. In 2011 the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled against Chinese export restrictions. After the WTO resolution, China immediately began exporting more fluorspar, but it is unclear in the long run whether China will continue to do so, considering its low reserves of fluorspar.

In 2012, the cooling down of the world’s economies negatively influenced fluorspar demand. As a result, prices for Mexican fluorspar delivered to the US are currently in the neighborhood of $150 to $175 per metric tonne.

Producing countries

The USGS notes that in 2011, the world’s fluorspar production peaked at 6.2 million tons. The world’s top fluorspar producers are China (53 percent), Mexico (17.4 percent), Mongolia (7 percent), South Africa (4.5 percent) and Russia (4 percent). Fluorspar is also produced in Spain, Kenya, Namibia, Morocco, Kazakhstan and Brazil.

Acid-grade Chinese fluorspar contains less than 1 percent silica, and due to its lack of impurities is one of the most desirable types of fluorspar. Mexican acidspar is higher in arsenic.

Reserves and resources

Fluorspar reserves have been delineated in many countries around the globe, but the most important locations are South Africa (17 percent), Mexico (13.5 percent), China (10 percent), Mongolia (9.2 percent) and Spain (2.5 percent), as per information provided by the USGS. The world’s total fluorspar reserves are estimated at 240 million tons.

The world’s identified fluorspar resource is estimated to be 500 million tons of contained fluorspar. Another 4.7 billion tons of 100-percent calcium fluoride (fluorspar) equivalent are believed to exist locked in phosphates.

Industry players and developments

Through its Mexichem Fluor subsidiary, Mexichem (OTC Pink:MXCHF) is the world’s largest fluorspar producer and the second-largest producer of HF. The company is also Mexico’s largest chemical company.

Mexichem is considered the only company that has a fully vertically integrated value chain, from extraction of fluorspar and production of HF through to the production of refrigerant gases. Mexichem also owns the world’s largest fluorspar mine, Las Cuevas, which is located in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. The San Luis Potosi plant annually produces 350,000 tonnes of metspar and 280,000 tonnes of acidspar. The company owns important fluorspar reserves in San Luis Potosi and high-purity fluorspar deposits in Coahuila, Mexico.

Spain’s MINERSA is the world’s oldest fluorspar producer, and with five mines and a concentrator located in Northern Spain, is also Europe’s largest. The company also owns the Vergenoeg mining operation in South Africa. At the end of 2012, its acid-grade fluorspar capacity was quoted at 440,000 tonnes per year.

RUSAL, a Russian aluminum producer, produces fluorspar at its Yaroslavsk open-pit mine which, according to a company press release, holds 22 million tonnes of reserves that allow for a 22-year mine life. It is the sole producer of fluorspar in Russia.

In 2012, Minmet Financing acquired Glebe Mines out of receivership through British Fluorspar. Minmet owns other industrial assets, including Italian producers of HF, aluminum fluoride and synthetic cryolite. Plans have been made for a 2013 restart of the mine to supply acid-grade fluorspar to Minmet’s Italian plants and customers in the UK and Northern Europe.

Also in 2012, UK’s Fluormin (LSE:FLOR) announced the sale of its South Africa-based Buffalo fluorspar project and its interest in Kenya Fluorspar Company in favor of focusing on Witkop, its South African fluorspar mine. In October 2012, the company announced that it would lay off most of its workers at its Witkop mine due to low-grade ore and “the collapse of the fluorspar market.”

In Mongolia, fluorspar is produced in mining operations that are joint ventures with Russian companies.

In Newfoundland, Canada, Canada Fluorspar (TSXV:CFI) is reactivating an existing underground fluorspar mine. An updated NI 43-101 report is due in the first quarter of 2013. The mining and processing operation is a joint venture with French chemical giant Arkema (EPA:AKE).

A host of companies around the world are exploring for fluorspar, including:

  • Prima Fluorspar, which operates the Liard project in British Columbia, Canada
  • Globe Metals & Mining (ASX:GBE) of Perth, Australia, which operates a rare earth-fluorspar project at Mount Muambe, Mozambique
  • Berkh Uul of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
  • Tiberon Minerals (owned by Dragon Capital Management), which is developing the Nui Phao tungsten-fluorspar property in Vietnam
  • South Africa’s privately owned SepFluor (a spin-off of Sephaku Holdings), which is developing the Nokeng mine and producing HF near Pretoria

Three international producers of fluorochemical products should also be mentioned: France’s Arkema, Honeywell International (NYSE:HON), located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and DuPont.

Facts to consider before investing

The BCGS notes that there is no foreseeable shortage of fluorspar. The world’s fluorspar reserves and reserve base could sustain current production levels for 39 and 81 years respectively. When calcium fluoride that comes from phosphates is included, another 758 years of production are available.

Temporary shortages could still occur as a result of technological innovations, political upheaval, rapid changes in environmental regulations and international trade issues.

However, any shortages will be short-lived as abundant resources exist around the globe and it takes only one year to open a new mine in a developing country (as opposed to five to six years in the western world).

In the event of such a shortage, the first to respond will likely be producers that have mothballed mines or have reduced their capacity as a result of depressed prices. Big producers that are vertically integrated and have numerous assets and good-quality reserves are well positioned to profit from any fluorspar shortage or price increase.

The bullish view is that China is running out of fluorspar. In fact, estimates show that at present consumption rates, China’s fluorspar reserves will only last another seven years. On the other hand, China’s fluorspar reserve base could cover its needs for another 40 years, according to the BCGS. Of course, it could then add to its reserve base through exploration.

In the near future, the most probable event is not a shortage, but a production shift from China to other countries. And that could create opportunities not only for established producers, but also for mine re-openings and perhaps a few select projects.

Due to fluorspar’s numerous uses, its price is not that volatile; however, it still correlates with GDP. At the end of 2012, depressed fluorspar prices put plans to re-open some old mines on hold and further deterred any investment in the exploration and development of greenfields projects. In the long-term, the price of fluorspar is expected to come in at less than $250 per metric tonne, according to an interview published by The Critical Metals Report.

The feasibility of new mining projects is also influenced by the presence of infrastructure (which is lacking in Kenya and Namibia), transportation costs (proximity to concentrators and HF manufacturers) and favorable government loans or the possibility of offtake agreements.

Compared to simple fluorspar miners, vertically integrated producers are more likely to have a better profit margin and pay good dividends.

It is to be expected that population growth and the emergence of developing countries will further stimulate fluorspar production — phosphate deposits included. Low-cost producers as well as the developers of the very few deposits that have good grades, sufficient scale, infrastructure and good logistics would benefit from the steady demand of fluorspar.

 

Securities Disclosure: I, Dan Oancea, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.