While chemical raw material markets grapple with the fluctuations of basic chemical prices, such as ethylene, propylene, toluene, and methanol, many are looking beyond the challenge of petrochemicals to other earth-extracted chemical products.

And with good reason.

Current fossil fuel demand is mostly based on energy for powering electrical devices, heating homes, and transportation. If oil scarcity or pressure to reduce CO2 emissions reaches a tipping point in the future, then fossil fuels can be replaced by other power sources, such as electricity from nuclear power, wind turbines, hydro-electric, or even futuristic plasma reactors. All of these can heat homes, power PCs and microwaves, and even drive cars and trains.

The result would be oil and gas fields being left purely for the need of the chemical industry; raw material reserves that would last centuries.

But other naturally sourced chemical feedstocks are as yet irreplaceable.

Here we look at the impact this situation is having on volatile titanium dioxide markets, where demand continues to sky-rocket, while resources dwindle, become harder to extract, or need to be sourced from locations far from markets.

Upward Pressure on Titanium Dioxide Demand

The largest pressures on TiO2 demand are continued population growth combined with a rise in the global standard of living.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Africa, where the population of 1.18 billion is set to double in the next thirty years. It is also a continent where widespread consumerism has yet to fully take hold, resulting in an expectant surge in demand for everyday consumer products over the coming years.

As African demand for paint, pharmaceuticals, ceramics, wall papers, coatings, furniture, paper, sanitary products, and plastics grows, so will demand for the chemical raw material used in manufacturing them. All of these products use the versatile feedstock TiO2.

This will lead to some crucial questions for chemical raw material suppliers and purchasers; What will happen to TiO2 prices in the coming decades? How can raw material purchasers reduce the impact of high TiO2 prices? Are alternatives to TiO2 a practical solution?

The End of the Good Old Days for TiO2

Back in 2010 the average price for a metric tonne of TiO2 in Africa was $500, skip forward to 2019, and the price has surged to $2,200 pmt; a more than four-fold price hike in less than a decade.

This was a situation much discussed at this year’s East African Coatings Congress (EACC) held in Nairobi, Kenya. The common consensus being that both prices and demand would stay high for the foreseeable future, with TiO2 remaining as the ‘go-to’ chemical feedstock for many firms in the building, coating, and construction industries. This, coupled with an anticipated boom in urban infrastructure and housing in Africa over the next few years, makes raw material purchasers pessimistic about any change in market conditions.

Attendees at the East African Coatings Congress.

As Andrew Pleeth, who spoke at the EACC on behalf of China Mineral Processing, a business with more than 30-years’ experience in the manufacture of products such as Snowhite  and  Snowpaque, observes, “The market of cheap and plentiful titanium dioxide is clearly over and there is every indication that over the medium- and long-term TiO2 prices will climb further and production facilities will be put under continuing close scrutiny.”

In fact, numerous industry analysts have separately predicted a compound annual growth rate of more than four percent through to 2023.

The reason, explains Pleeth, in an insightful interview with the industry journal Coatings World, “is due primarily to its important physical characteristics which are high refractive index, high opacity, chemical inertness and high brightness.”

Equal quantities by volume of five white pigments in an acrylic vehicle; pigment refractive index in black, ratio of pigment refractive index to vehicle refractive index (1.5) in red; anatase and rutile are different crystal forms of titanium dioxide.

Opacity is the light-scattering ability of a pigment (characterized by refractive index, particle size and particle-size distribution). The ability of a paint film to prevent light from interacting with the substrate and is achieved when all incident light is reflected back i.e. scattered or absorbed.”

The challenge for anyone buying chemical feedstocks is that when it comes to refractive index, chemical inertness, brightness, and opacity, not all raw materials are equal.

And given this, does a true substitute for titanium dioxide exist?

You can find out more about how chemical suppliers are handling these challenges, and how titanium dioxide markets are adapting here.

Photo credit: Coatingsgroup, Coating, Youtube, Weforum, OKchem, Miningnewsnorth, Ausimmbulletin, Handprint, Homeguides, BrandSA, & Coatings