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By Tom Vulcan

Anyone with children is familiar with talcum powder—that loose, white powder used to prevent diaper rash. But talc itself isn't just white. It can also be black, blue, brown, grey, pink, silver and violet. It all depends upon the talc's chemical composition, and what proportions of such elements as aluminum, iron, manganese and titanium may also be present.

While talc may not have as many recreational uses as other white powders, we are much more likely to come across it in our everyday lives and to benefit from its use. In fact, talc is found in everything from animal feed to tires, and has been for millennia. As long as 15,000 years ago, cave dwellers used talc in their paints. For at least 5,000 years, it has been used in cosmetics, especially as a skin lightener, and 1,000 years ago, the Chinese began using it in their glazed pottery.

What Is Talc?

Talc, with a chemical formula of Mg3Si4O10(OH)2, is a hydrous silicate mineral made up of magnesium (Mg), silica (SiO2) and water.

A Talc Molecule

Click charts below to enlarge

Talc molecule

Composed of microscopic platelets held together by very weak bonds, talc feels soft and greasy to the touch—one of the reasons it is used as a lubricant. And if diamond is at one end of the Mohs scale of hardness with a measure of 10, talc sits firmly at the other with a measure of 1.

Talc boasts a number of important chemical and physical properties, including:

  • Chemical inertness
  • Fragrance retention
  • Grease and oil absorption
  • High thermal conductivity
  • Hydrophobicity (nothing to do with rabies!)
  • Lamellarity, or "platyness"
  • Low electrical conductivity
  • Luster
  • Magnesium content
  • Organophilicity
  • Purity
  • Softness (nonabrasive and unctuous)
  • Whiteness

Except for soapstone (also known as steatite or "massive talc"), talc is most often used in the form of a powder. Usually produced by opencast mining, the extracted talc is sorted and then milled to the required particle size and particle distribution. Typical particle size can range from 1-15 microns.

Grain shape and size, together with its purity and even color, will also have a bearing upon what the talc is used for. Often, talcs are also treated; for example, talcs used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics are often decontaminated using heat, while those used in the rubber and papermaking industries are coated with various chemicals.

Talc is very useful in the manufacture of/in:

  • Additives in foods: an anti-sticking agent
  • Animal feed: to prevent caking and improve the pressability of pellets
  • Asphalt shingles: for backsurfacing and to prevent sticking in storage
  • Body powder, makeup and soaps: inert, soft and fragrance-retentive
  • Cables: to improve electrical insulation and flame retardancy
  • Ceramics, including catalysts and tiles: as a flux and to control thermal expansion - particularly in catalysts and particulate filters
  • Fertilizers: to prevent caking and lengthen storage periods
  • Glazes: to improve thermal expansion and fusion
  • Olive oil processing: to improve oil extraction
  • Paints: an anti-corrosive, to produce matting and to prevent cracking
  • Paper and papermaking: to improve paper smoothness, water retention in certain papers, and printability and runnability for coated papers
  • Pesticides: a carrier and dilutant
  • Pharmaceuticals: as an excipient or lubricant
  • Plastics, particularly automotive parts: to increase dimensional stability and stiffness
  • Rubber hoses, membranes, sealings, stoppers and tires: to improve tear and tensile properties, and the flow in molding
  • Sanitaryware: to improve gloss and whiteness
  • Tableware: to enable shorter firing cycles
  • Wires: to improve electrical insulation and flame retardancy

In the US, the major uses for domestically produced talc remain in ceramics, paint and paper.

2008 - Uses for Domestically Produced Talc

2008 – Uses for Domestically Produced Talc

2009 - Uses for Domestically Produced Talc

2009 – Uses for Domestically Produced Talc

Note to both charts: "Other" includes art sculpture, asphalt filler, auto body filler, construction caulks, flooring, insecticides, joint compound and other uses not specified.

Whence Talc?

Talc is mined from talc-bearing metamorphic rock. Within this rock, bodies of talc can often range in thickness from tens of meters to over 100 meters. How the talc formed within the rock and the nature of the rock itself determines the quality of the talc.

Different Types of Talc

Talc Types

There are three main types of commercially exploited talc deposits, categorized by the rock in which they are found. The most significant category, from which some 60% of the world's production comes, is talc metamorphosed from dolomite. These deposits, which form the majority of large deposits to be found in the US today, produce some of the purest and whitest talc.

The Yellowstone Mine in Montana, U.S.

Another 20% of talc comes from the metamorphosis of serpentinite into a mixture of reactional magnesium carbonates and talc, forming the ore commonly known as "soapstone." Soapstone itself is often used domestically in countertops and the surrounds of fireplaces and stoves.

A further 10% of the world's talc comes from silico-aluminous rock derivative ores, such as those to be found at Trimouns in the French Pyrenees.

Talc-bearing metamorphic rock from all these categories is found worldwide, from southeastern Australia to Vermont, and from southern Brazil to Finland. And, of course, in China, the world's largest producer of talc (although Talc de Luzenac, part of Rio Tinto's (RTP) Luzenac Group, does operate the world's largest talc mine—in southwest France).

It is, however, not that common to find talc in concentrations that can be exploited economically.

Currently, after China, the world's largest talc-producing countries are the US, India, Finland and (including crude talc production) France.

World Talc Production: 2005 - 2009

Notes: eEstimated *Crude talc †Talc and pyrophyllite

The Talc Producers

US

Last year in the US, talc was mined by three companies (accounting for nearly 100 percent of all US domestic production) at six mines in three states: Montana (the largest producing state), Texas and Vermont. The largest producer in the US was the Luzenac Group (part of Rio Tinto) at its mines in Montana and Vermont; followed by the American Talc Company in Texas; and Specialty Minerals Inc., a Minerals Technologies Inc. (NYSE:MTX) subsidiary, also in Montana.

The Luzenac Group is one of the largest talc producers in the world, and certainly the largest in the US. According to Rio Tinto, "(e)very year, Luzenac produces, ships and sells in excess of 1.2 million tonnes of talc from over 30 mines and processing plants in Europe, North America, Central America and the Asia-Pacific region. Luzenac supplies over 25 per cent of talc consumed worldwide."

Having first tried to divest itself of Luzenac back in late 2008, Rio Tinto shelved its efforts soon thereafter when economic conditions deteriorated. In its most recent report (2009), the company said that "the talc divestment process will be renewed in 2010," but results have yet to be seen. Rio Tinto's worldwide talc production has fallen steadily over the past three years, from some 1,281,000 tonnes in 2007 to 888,000 in 2009.

India

Expansion in India's paint, paper and plastics industries in the last several years have led to substantially increased demand for talc in India. The two main talc producers in India are the Golcha Group and Golcha Associated Group.

The Golcha Group has met this increase in domestic demand by a similar increase in production. To benefit from increasing demand across Southeast Asia, the firm recently opened a new talc mill in Thailand, to be operated in a joint venture with Chemintac. According to the company, the plant is expected to produce 36,000 tonnes of talc and other minerals per year. Of these, some 60 percent will be sold to leading talcum powder brands in Thailand, and the remainder to plastic compounding industries in the Asia Pacific region.

The third-largest talc producer in India is the Rajasthan-based Jai Group. There are a large number of other talc producers in India, but they mainly produce fewer high-quality grades of talc.

Finland

Mondo Minerals B.V., owned by London-based HgCapital, is the second-largest talc-mining and -processing company in the world, with mines in Finland and processing operations both in the Netherlands and Finland. It is also Europe's largest talc producer, with a capacity to produce some 650,000 dry tonnes per year.

In April 2009, Mondo announced a joint venture with the Beihai Group, a major Chinese talc producer, based in the Haicheng district of Liaoning province. Mondo describes the rationale for this move as being a way not only to loosen dependence on its own Finnish resources, but also to supply more easily its customers "in fast growing Asian markets."

China

The three centers of China's talc industry are Liaoning, Shandong and Guangxi provinces, all of which produce large quantities of talc. In 2008, it was estimated that the three provinces produced some 500,000 tonnes per annum of high-grade white talc alone.

Although even as recently as 2008, the total number of talc producers in China was estimated to be around 300, back in the early ‘00s, Haichen Minchem Company listed the following companies as the major Chinese talc producers:

  • Liaoning Aihai Talc Co Ltd
  • Haichen Beihai Minerals Co Ltd
  • Haichen Shuiquan Talc Mining Co Ltd
  • Haichen Pailou Talc Co Ltd
  • Shandong Pingdu Talc Co Ltd
  • Shandong Laizhou Talc Co Ltd
  • Guilin Guiguang Talc Development Co Ltd
  • Guangxi Longguang Talc Development Co Ltd
  • Guangxi Longsheng Huamei Talc Development Co Ltd

These companies remain a dominant force in the Chinese talc market, with an increasing number of small to medium-size companies exiting the business, either because their supplies of talc have been exhausted, or because they have been purchased by larger firms.

The above nine companies, together with the North Sea Group, Three Springs Talc Mining Co., Ltd, Talc Mine Qixia and Lung Kwong Talc Development Co., Ltd., were recently reported to account for 80 percent of all talc production in China and 95 percent of its talc exports.

The Outlook for Talc

The demand for talc is heavily dependent upon the construction sector (ceramics, paint and roofing), particularly new home construction; the health of the automobile (plastics) and manufacturing (e.g., papermaking) industries matters too. Over the past several years, in the U.S. especially, the demand for talc has dropped off considerably. At the same time, however, demand for talc in Asia has remained either steady, or, as in India, has increased substantially.

Going forward, while the health of the global market for talc will most certainly remain dependent upon industrial output and construction, the ability of China to satisfy domestic demand for talc may also prove to be important. (The government has already placed restrictions, through export quotas, on certain talc exports.)

Domestically, the Chinese talc industry faces a number of challenges. Demand for high-grade talc has increased significantly, but domestic supply remains too low to satisfy either domestic or export demand.

Why? Domestic production in China is of predominantly low- and medium-grade talc. Export demand has risen significantly over the past several years, and been met. (Both the U.S. and Japan are significant customers for Chinese talc, and together they account for the majority of China's lump talc exports.) And, the small and medium-size producers are no longer there.

Looking laterally, the health of the talc market's future may also depend on how long it takes for people to realize just how environmentally friendly a mineral talc actually is. The European Commission recently noted that (in Europe anyway):

Industry is committed to ensuring that administrations understand the benefits talc brings to a myriad of everyday products and that customers find value in using talc in their formulations, while guaranteeing a high level of protection to the customers and the environment.

Opportunities in Talc

Unfortunately, none of the main companies producing talc is currently publicly quoted. So for those wishing to gain direct exposure to the mineral through shares in a mining company, no such opportunity currently exists.

It will, however, be worth keeping an eye on what HgCapital does with Mondo Minerals and what Rio Tinto does with Luzenac. In addition, some of the Chinese talc companies may one day soon go public. And if, on the environmental front, some further uses were to be found for talc as a substitute for other toxic substances, then things could become quite exciting.

In the meantime, though, it is probably just worthwhile keeping a watching brief on this innocent, environmentally friendly and, more often than not, white, powder.

Afterword

As odd as it may seem, in 2009, the U.S. National Defense Stockpile ("NDS") was authorized to sell off its entire uncommitted inventory of talc - 865 tonnes of block and lump talc, together with 621 tonnes of ground talc. Sadly for the government, there have been no takers.

A perfectly sensible question would be: Why on earth is there any talc in the NDS anyway? The answer provides a wonderful example of just how long it can take a government to get around to doing something. The block and lump talc is there because, back in the dim, deep past before transistors and when tubes were cutting-edge technology, steatite was used to make the bases for such tubes; hence its presence in the stockpile.

So, if no one wants to buy the talc, what can the NDS do with the stuff? One suggestion, from a particularly highly regarded person in the world of talc, seems eminently sensible: The NDS should either sell it or, even better, give it away to the nation's art schools. It is wonderful stuff to carve. As evidence, you only have to look at those incredible carvings at Belur, Halebid and Sravanabelagola in India or, on a somewhat smaller scale, those little blue-green scarabs from early Egypt. It's soft to carve, looks good and lasts thousands of years. What more could any sculptor want?

Sources

Industrial Mineral Association North America (IMA-NA)

US Geological Survey (USGS)

Disclosure: No positions

Source: So Much More Than Just an Innocent White Powder: Talc Market Is One to Watch