Tin as a fuel catalyst? Tin as a fire retardant? Its potential uses keep growing — along with the list of companies exploring for it
A new corporate strategy which centres on critical metals — that includes rare earths — that have strong market fundamentals and with an increasing use in innovative technologies. And with strong growing demand and also with constrained or restricted supply. Sounds like our story here at InvestorIntel, doesn’t it?
But here’s the key point. Search Minerals (TSXV: SMY) — the company declaring the corporate strategy outlined above — has chosen tin as its first critical metal on which it will focus. As the company points out, tin prices have risen from $4,000/tonne in 2002 to $22,000/tonne this year (actually, it closed Monday on the London Metal Exchange at $22,800/tonne, and has recently been over $23,000). Search has previously announced some non-binding letters of intent over Brazilian tin ground and those discussions are continuing. (Search stresses though that, so far as its REE project is concerned, it is not resting on the oars. But the decision to put tin on the fast track is highly significant.)
But, however, this is not about Search Minerals as such. This is really a follow-up to the post I wrote back on September 24, “The critical metal whose price may be about to soar”.
Search’s announcement is just another confirmation that interest in tin is increasing — but it’s also another opportunity for me to provide some back story on the whole tin issue.
The tin story is at least 5,000 years old, back to when people first began combining it with copper to make bronze. It provided the hardening agent that copper needed. Mining has been recorded as far back as 3000 BC, and around 2500 BC there were tin trading routes established and tin merchants had got into business. Tin artefacts have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 1580 BC.
The sources of tin are an interesting matter, too. While many minerals are found all over the world, and produced by a range of countries (just think iron ore or copper or gold), 98% of present mine production comes from developing countries (the one developed country producer being Australia). China accounts for 70%, the other producers of note are Indonesia, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and DR Congo along with Rwanda and Burundi. Tin, of course, is not unique but its output is very heavily skewed to countries with high to medium political risk.
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Back in the 1980s, before the collapse of the tin market, Malaysia, Bolivia and Thailand were all extremely important players. Brazil, for a brief period in the late 1980s, became the world’s leading producer, so there clearly is potential there (as Search Minerals seems to believe).
According to the International Tin Research Institute (ITRI), 40% of tin being mined is still produced by artisanal miners (Indonesia, China, Bolivia and the Congo-Rwanda-Burundi area being the main ones involved).
Recycled tin quantities are also in the rise: tin from alloys, solder, brass and bronzes can be used without the need for re-refining to pure tin. As ITRI points out, “tin can be easily recycled with no loss of quality with secondary material refined to high purity grades”.
And some more examples of just how much of a technology metal tin is becoming.
Says ITRI: “A remarkable but little known fact about tin is that it can save energy and reduce emissions when added to fuel”. Tin is able to stabilise the fuel in such a way as to make engines burn more cleanly and so generate more power. ITRI’s laboratory tests show fuel savings up to 10% and emissions reductions of as much as 30%.
And there are solar panels. At present, solar cells use expensive and rare elements such as gallium; Kesterite, containing 30% tin, has been shown to work in this technology. Tin is replacing antimony as a fire retardant in plastics. Tin can make lithium-ion batteries last longer. The list of future uses keeps growing.
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