Rio Tinto’s titanium dioxide-ilmenite business extends back to the 1950s and has been part of its long-standing strategy within the industrial minerals area.
The company sees titanium dioxide as a good business to be in.
It is a low-cost producer and roughly produces a third of the world’s titanium dioxide feedstock capacity.
Rio Tinto recovers more than a third of the sector’s cash flows and net incomes, which is consistent with the company’s strategy.
The company sees its titanium dioxide business as continuing to develop for decades.
In 1989, Rio Tinto acquired Quebec Iron & Titanium (QIT), which for long has been the leading producer of titanium oxide feedstocks for the pigment industry. About 95% of titanium oxide goes into paints and plastics as pigment.
During the course of the 1950s, QIT came up with a new process for producing a feedstock, referred to as slag, for the pigment sector.
During the 1960s, regulations forbade the use of lead carbonate in paint and at that time titanium dioxide, which is benign to the human body and nonhazardous, became the mineral of choice in paints and products that enter the body, like toothpaste.
From the 1960s onwards, the use of titanium dioxide for the purpose of pigmentation has continued to grow.
During the course of the 1970s, QIT identified ilmenite sands in South Africa, near Richards Bay, which, at that stage, had been generally undeveloped.
QIT established Richards Bay Minerals and brought in the then South African mining company, Gencor, which evolved into BHP Billiton, which holds 50% of Richards Bay Minerals.
Richards Bay Minerals has both a sand-mining process and it also has ilmenite smelting facilities.
The sands in South Africa and Madagascar, where Rio Tinto will be producing ilmenite before the end of the year, have small black ilmenite particles, which represent titanium and iron in an oxide form.
The particles of ilmenite are melted, the oxygen is removed, as much iron as possible recovered and a titanium dioxide product is produced.
Generally, the ilmenite contains between 85% and 94% titanium dioxide.
That goes into the chemicals industry to produce a pure titanium dioxide, which then goes into the paint sector.
QIT obtains ilmenite from rock containing 3% to 35% titanium dioxide. The ilmenite at Richards Bay Minerals is about 42% titanium dioxide
What makes QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM), in Madagascar, unique is its high quality at 60% titanium dioxide.
This high quality also means that there are fewer residues when this titanium dioxide is used in paint making.
Generally, paint factories are in industrialised areas and are limited by permit conditions for their residue produced.
There is thus a great expansion in value of use beyond the increase in grade.
QMM was thus identified in the 1980s as an attractive resource and began to develop slowly over a period of 20 years, along with biodiversity science around operating in Madagascar, a sensitive location for biodiversity.
For the past ten years, Rio Tinto has been establishing best biodiversity practice on Madaga-scar.