Everything you ever wanted to know about boron… including how it may save the world
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Boron is a quiet, unassuming mineral which much like a tomboy who suddenly puts on a dress, is about to get a lot more attention.
Boron has a number of end uses, none of which are particularly exciting — but that doesn’t make it any less useful.
It is sold in a variety of formats, including boric acid, borax, and raw minerals containing boron.
At the moment it’s mainly used in insulating materials, ceramics, and detergents. It’s also used in eye drops, mild antiseptics, washing powders and tile glazes.
It’s also used to kill cockroaches — so if you’re not a huge fan, invest in boron.
But its largest use is in the glass and ceramics industry, which according to a Market Study Report accounts for about 49 per cent of the demand (at this point, but more on this later).
Unlike regular glass, glass which contains boron trioxide won’t crack under extreme temperature changes.
This glass (dubbed borosilicate glass) is most used at laboratories, and in kitchen cookware.
Boron also has a huge role to play in the tough glass covers of smartphones and tablets. If they didn’t contain boron they’d be even more prone to cracking.
So far, it’s living up the non-existent hype the product has — and the market for boron has been largely steady for a while.
But, it does offer a one use which in particular has the potential to get investors excited: agriculture.
Okay, it’s a big claim — but hear us out.
Boron deficiency in plants is actually the number one micronutrient deficiency on the planet.
It typically plays the role of strengthening the structural integrity of cell walls in plants, so the absence of boron in plants means weaker walls, which in turn means more moisture escapes cell walls and plants become dried out.
In arid conditions, where moisture retention is a challenge anyway, a boron deficiency makes matters worse.
A micronutrient solution which contains boron can increase the quality of the soil, and increase the water retention of cells within plants, which is why it’s an emerging market.
Plants typically affected by boron deficiencies include apples, beetroot, cabbage, strawberries and pears.
With the climate only getting warmer from here on out, the number of plant species expected to be affected by boron deficiency is expected to grow.
That’s why the boron market is shaping as a sort-of potash/phosphate 2.0 market — and some of the early numbers are justifying the hype.
According to a report from QY Research done last year, the global market for refined boron is worth about $US2.04 billion ($3.01 billion).
The refined boron market is forecasted to reach about $2.9 billion by the end of 2025 with a compound annual growth rate of about 4.5 per cent.
At the moment, most of the production of boron comes from Turkey and the US.
Most of the emerging demand is expected to come from Asia, not just because of growing urbanisation (needing more borates in glass and insulation) but also because it will need more food.
It’s the growth of the agricultural micronutrients market could give the broader boron market a lift as the twin terrors of climate change and population growth hit.
According to a report from Allied Market Research, the current global crop micronutrients market was about $6.07 billion in 2017 — and is projected to reach $11.5 billion by 2025.
This equates to a compound annual growth rate of 8.3 per cent.
Anybody who’s invested in potash or phosphate would be well-aware of the investment rationale here.
Asia-Pacific is expected to contribute to most of the demand during this time, with a CAGR of 8.9 per cent. India can be singled out as a standout market thanks to its challenges of dealing with a climate which can swing from monsoon to drought.
The research has found that “Factors such as effectiveness of micronutrients for crop yield and productivity, increased awareness among growers about the benefits of micronutrients and shrinkage of agricultural land, are driving the global crop micronutrients market.”
And boron is expected to play one of the leading roles in the micronutrient market, only ranking behind zinc and copper as the micronutrient ingredients expected to see a rise in the coming years.
Unfortunately, while there is an expected growth in boron use to come, production is still incredibly tight.
Currently the supply side is controlled by just a handful of players.
Two companies account for 73 per cent of the total boron output, being Rio Tinto’s (ASX:RIO) Boron mine (that’s it’s actual name) in California and the Turkish government-owned Eti Maden mines in Turkey.
Customers are wary of becoming more reliant on Turkey for their essential boron supply and Rio’s Boron mine is approaching the end of its life. So there’s a growing desire to secure alternative long-term supply sources.
Interestingly, there are a few lithium-related projects where boron is a happy little bonus along the way.
The biggest emerging play is Rio’s Jadar lithium-boron play in Serbia, which it says could come on stream in 2023.
It has a JORC resource of 136 million tonnes, which includes 21 million tonnes of boron trioxide and 2.5 million tonnes of lithium oxide.
On the junior side, Bacanora Lithium, which is listed in London, is best known for its Sonora lithium project in Mexico. But nearby lies the Magdalena borate project.
There are two ASX-listed players who have their foot on significant boron deposits but likely not large enough in themselves to make a huge dent in the supply-side picture.
American Pacific Borate & Lithium (ASX:ABR) is quietly progressing its Fort Cady project in California, planning a two-stage phase one project based on in-situ leaching.
Phase one A will produce 40,000 tonnes of potassium sulphate along with 6000 tonnes of boric acid.
The next phase will ramp up production of boric acid to 90,000 tonnes.
Meanwhile, while primarily a lithium play, ioneer (ASX:INR) is using boron as somewhat of a hedge against current low lithium prices.
In fact, early last month it was able to produce boric acid at its Rhyolite Ridge project in Nevada.
According to its PFS figures, it will be able to produce lithium carbonate at $US1796 per tonne. The key to that low price is the credit it will get on production of boric acid.
Its plan is to start producing 173,000 tonnes of boric acid from 2021, with a mine life of 30 years.
Boron is shaping as a niche commodities market where demand is expected to outstrip supply, creating a supportive pricing environment in the years to come.
While its use in industrial applications such as glass manufacture is giving the commodity its current impetus, it’s boron’s use in micronutrients which is expected to play a larger role in the next decade.
Given there are a paucity of investor options for getting into boron (you would hardly pile into Rio Tinto for its boron exposure), the options that do exist should expect to see some interest in the coming years.