Titanium was first discovered in 1791. Deposits originate from magma from which the highly resistant titanium minerals are liberated by natural erosion and concentrated along ancient and present-day shorelines. Most mineral sands deposits mined today were formed during the Quaternary Period over 1.8 million years ago. The primary commercially-relevant minerals in these sands are titanium-bearing rutile, leucoxene and ilmenite, in addition to zircon, garnet and magnetite.
The majority of the world's titanium feedstock today originates from alluvial sand deposits located in Australia, South Africa and the United States. Titanium mineral deposits are frequently accumulated along beach, river or deltaic banks as a result of tidal, wave or water flow and wind action that serves to concentrate the heavy titanium-bearing minerals. Key minerals are removed from these sand deposits using a variety of techniques which exploit their high specific gravity, as well as separation techniques which differentiate the minerals based on their magnetic and electrostatic properties.
Over 90% of the world's titanium minerals are sold to the pigment industry which manufactures products for the paint, coatings, paper and plastic industries. Titanium-bearing minerals are converted into titanium dioxide pigment using either a chloride (chlorine gas) or sulphate (sulphuric acid) process.
Titanium dioxide (TiO2) has a high refractive index and, in powder form, is one of the whitest substances on earth. Titanium dioxide pigment is prized for its chemical stability, brightness, non-toxicity and ultraviolet resistance, while titanium metal is known for its extremely high strength to weight ratio and fatigue and oxidization resistance. The unique properties of titanium dioxide give colours a richness unmatched by any other pigment, making it the basic critical ingredient in a wide range of industrial and consumer products including paints, plastics, cosmetics, sunscreens and even candy. The physical properties of the metal make it a key material for use in airframe and jet engine parts, spacecraft and missiles, in addition to high-end sports equipment and prosthetic joints.
Titanium Market Supply/Demand
The demand for the bulk of titanium-bearing mineral feedstock is for the production of pigments. Approximately 94% goes into paint, plastics, and paper products and the remaining 6% mainly into metal, welding and other. According to industry estimates, the titanium feedstock and associated downstream industries are a US$9 billion a year market.
In the last 25 years, overall demand has grown by about 3% per year and, according to industry estimates, this level of growth is expected to continue to be driven by expanding uses in numerous end markets from architectural paints to aerospace to plastic bottling. Titanium demand is tied to macroeconomic factors and, accordingly, tracks global gross domestic product, avoiding the deep cyclical price volatility of many industrial commodities. Consumption is concentrated in North America and Europe, but China has become a major player in the global TiO2 industry and Chinese consumption is growing rapidly.