Base metals are the major industrial non-ferrous metals other than precious metals and minor. Specifically, they are aluminium, copper, lead, nickel, tin and zinc. All six are traded on the London Metal Exchange (LME), which is the principal global marketplace for base metals accounting for abot 80% of global trade. The main exchange in China is the Shanghai Futures Exchange (SHFE), where aluminium, copper, lead and zinc are traded, while copper is also traded on the New York Commodity Exchange (Comex).
Prices are governed by the interaction between supply and demand fundamentals and the flow of investment and speculative capital into and out of the market.
The base metals major applications are found in industries such as automotive and transport, building and construction, intrastructure, electrical and electronics, packaging, consumer goods and batteries.
Traditional markets in Europe, the USA and Japan are still important, but have been overtaken by China during the last 10 years, which now accounts for around 40% of global production and consumption of each base metal.
Types of Base Metal
A light and durable metal that is easily rolled, extruded and recycled, aluminium is produced from bauxite via an intermediate product, alumina. Four tonnes of bauxite yields approximately two tonnes of alumina, which in turn results in about one tonne of primary aluminium out of the smelter gate. Several other ingredients are needed, but energy is the main input and most of this is consumed as electricity at the smelting stage to convert alumina to metal. It is because of the significant energy needs that primary aluminium production has increasingly gravitated towards regions of low energy cost rather than to where the metal is most needed for example Japan, a major aluminium consumer, today has negligible smelting capacity, whereas the Middle East has established itself as a major primary aluminium production centre over the past decade. With aluminium prices tending to trade around the marginal cost of production in recent years, higher cost smelters remain under pressure.
The global aluminium market has been in a supply surplus since 2007, but excess material has been stored in financing and rent deals in warehouses, effectively keeping availability tight and elevating premiums to record high levels. However, increased regulatory scrutiny of the warehouse industry in 2013 has put premiums on a downward trajectory
The most conductive both electrically and thermally of all the commonly available metals, copper is produced from sulphide or oxide ores typically from large open cast mines. Sulphide ores are concentrated, smelted and refined into cathode, while oxide ores can be heap-leached to produce cathode via the solvent-extraction, electowinning (SX-EW) process.
Major copper mining regions are found in the south western USA and Latin America, where Chile alone accounts for about one third of global output. The largest copper mining company in the world is Chilean state-owned producer Codelco, while the largest mine in the world is Escondida, also in Chile, but operated by global resources giant BHP Billiton. In contrast to the main centre of global copper mine production, the key region for refined copper production is Asia, led by China. The region is a major importer of concentrate and scrap.
The copper market has faced a decade of structural supply shortages created by a combination of underinvestment in new mines and a propensity for unplanned disruptions, which coincided with Chinas demand boom. This underpinned high prices and a wave on fresh investments in new and expanded mining capacity. However, 2012 marked a transition to what should a new era of relatively ample supply as new projects come on line at the same time as economic growth in China and the developing world stabilises.
Mined principally from ores often associated with zinc and silver, lead is a dense, ductile, low strength metal that has seen its range of industrial applications decline in recent decades in the face of environmental and health concerns, and this will continue. Currently, as much as 80% of lead produced in the world finds its way into the lead-acid storage battery market, the majority of which are used in the vehicles, but also in emergency back-up power systems and other industrial applications such as remote access power systems.
The growth of Chinas automotive market over the past decade into the largest in the world has been a major driver of lead demand growth, and the explosion in popularity of electric bicycles (e-bikes) has boosted usage rates further. Lead is also still used to a small degree in the glass and plastics industries, for radiation shielding and cable sheathing.
Lead has the highest recycling rate of all the base metals, with more than 60% of production in the Western World coming from recycling, primarily of spent lead-acid batteries. The ratio is closer to 40% in China, which suggests that there is great potential for growth in secondary production in this country as environmental and recycling standards catch up to those of the West.
Rarely visible in its pure form in modern life, nickels principal applications are through its performance as a nickel-rich alloy or through the properties it bestows on other metals as an alloying addition. Nickel-bearing alloys, with their high temperature performance, are crucial to the design of modern aircraft engines and the metal is also vitally important in stainless steel production a sector that accounts for about two-thirds of all nickel usage.
Nickel ores fall into three types: nickel-copper sulphides, laterites and silicates, with processing methods different for each type. The sulphide ores, of which Canadian, Russian and Australian deposits are best known, are concentrates and refined into high-purity metal, usually producing copper and platinum group metals en-route. Other ores, largely mined in Indonesia, New Caledonia, the Philippines, Cuba, Brazil and Colombia, have a high iron content and are a natural feed for producing ferro-nickel or nickel pig iron (NPI) for the steel industry.
New sulphide deposits are far and far between, leaving the future of the nickel industry increasingly dependent upon laterites. In recent years, the new generation of nickel laterite-based mega projects employing pressure acid leaching or ferro-nickel smelting have proved to be capital intensive and technologically challenging, leading to lengthy commissioning and ramp-up delays and even project suspensions. The void has been filled by a boom in NPI production in China, but the nickel market is now characterised by major oversupply.
The only tin ore with economic value is cassiterite. It is found in hard-rock deposits in quartz veins or in the eroded remnants of these orebodies that have been re-concentrated in alluvial or eluvial deposits in riverbeds or offshore. Hardrock mining has gradually lost ground to more cost-effective gravel pumps and dredging operations, with Indonesia and China the main centres of modern ore production.
The tin market is arguably the fundamentally tightest of all the base metals, and this is mainly a function of the supply side, due to a lack of investment in exploration and project development in recent decades, tightening environmental regulations in China and Indonesia, unrest in the DRC and declining ore grades in Peru. Tin prices will need to remain high in order to incentivise new investments in the coming years.
On the demand side, about half of all tin produced goes into the manufacture of solder for the electronics industry. Tinplate and plastics are the next most important sectors for tin usages, but the metal also finds applications in glassmaking and fire retardants.
Zincs greatest property lies in acting as a protector for other substrates, especially steel. Zinc-coated steels using mainly the continuous hot-dip galvanising method on sheet or wire now absorb just over half of all zinc produced. When alloyed with copper, a series of brasses provides for the second-largest offtake of zinc, and this has overtaken the diecast sector in volume terms.
Geologically, zinc ore mainly takes the form of sphalerite and commonly occurs with lead, silver and copper ores in polymetallic deposits. Ore is concentrated and refined and China has grown to be the largest producer in the world of mined and refined zinc. It is also the largest consumer.
The zinc market has been in structural oversupply since 2007, but the closure of a number of major mines due to reserve exhaustion during the 2012-2016 period (such as Brunswick and Perseverance in Canada, Lisheen in Ireland and Century in Australia) should see supply tighten up, though not to the extent that supply deficits become commonplace. Therefore, zinc is expected to remain lower priced than its sister metal lead, which is a fundamentally tighter market.