In this guide, we cover the basics about lead as a commodity. After reading, you will be familiar with the primary uses of lead and why it’s considered a valuable commodity in commercial industries.
If you’re already knowledgeable about lead, you may want to read about expert opinions on the metal.
Main Uses Of Lead
Here are the main uses of lead, primarily in commercial sectors:
|Uses of Lead||Description|
|Batteries||The chemical properties of lead make it a mainstay in batteries and storage technologies for renewable energy sources.|
|Protective Shielding||Lead effectively absorbs electromagnetic radiation, so it is vital in creating shields around particle accelerators, X-rays equipment, nuclear reactors and containers transporting radioactive material.|
|Ammunition||The physical properties of lead make it the ideal metal for manufacturing bullets.|
|Sheets and industrial parts||Industrial sheets constructed from lead dampen noise and vibrations.|
Why is Lead Valuable?
Lead is a soft, dense metal with a low melting point. It is an important component in battery production.
In addition, its high density and resistance to corrosion make it useful in industries ranging from piping to X-rays.
The history of lead as a component in producing goods traces back to the ancient Egyptians. The early civilization used the metal in pottery glazes, soldering components, paints, and piping.
They even cast ornamental objects out of lead. By the 15th century, lead was used as a roofing material for cathedrals and in stained-glass windows.
By the late 1800s, lead-acid storage battery production began.
Today lead production is a huge global business. Modern mines produce more than 4.7 million metric tons of the metal annually, while recyclers produce another roughly 6 million metric tons.
How is Lead Produced?
There are two methods for producing lead: primary production (mining) and secondary production (recycling).
Each method individually accounts for about half of total overall production.
Primary production of lead involves extracting the metal from ores found deep in underground mines. More than 60 minerals contain lead, but only three contain enough to be considered commercially viable:
This mineral is the most common one extracted for lead production. In its purest form, it contains only lead and sulfur.
However, most galena contains other trace metals including:
Cerrusite is a mineral also known as white lead.
This is a crystalline mineral that occurs when galena oxidizes
More than 95% of lead is extracted from one of these three minerals. However, ores containing these minerals usually contain significant deposits of other valuable metals such as silver and zinc.
As a result, lead production usually occurs as a byproduct of silver or zinc mining.
The process of primary production involves three steps:
- Ore concentration
A series of stages called froth flotation breaks down the ores into particles with greater concentrations of lead ore. First, the ore is ground with water into fine sand particles.
The resulting particles are then further diluted with water and chemical detergents and mixed in a series of tanks.
The tanks agitate the mixture, and the lead and zinc particles float to the top, while clay and other silicates sink to the bottom.
What Happens To The Lead And Zinc Particles?
These particles get skimmed off the top, where they are further concentrated. A chemical agent called a depressant is added to a tank with the lead and zinc particles.
This causes most of the zinc ore to sink to the bottom and the lead ore to float to the top.
The lead ore then gets skimmed off. (Additional chemicals, such as copper sulfate, allow the zinc ores to be skimmed off later in the process.)
At this stage, the lead particles skimmed contain between 40 to 80% lead. The remaining concentration contains other particles such as silver, sulfur, or zinc. The particles are now ready to be heated in smelters.
To remove the sulfur and other impurities, the lead particles are mixed with other materials including lime and sandstone.
The resulting mixture is spread on a moving grate and heated by air that reaches temperatures of 2,550 degrees Fahrenheit.
This roasting process produces a brittle material called sinter, which is mostly lead oxide but also contains zinc, iron, and silicon oxides.
The sulfur in the concentrate burns away in the form of sulfur dioxide gas.
The sinter is then broken into lumps and loaded into a blast furnace with coke fuel. The coke burns at temperatures of 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit and produces molten lead.
The molten lead produces base lead bullion that is 95 – 99% pure. Further refining in drossing kettles removes additional impurities. In order to be commercially viable, lead must be 99 – 99.999% pure.
After the impurities have been removed and the lead has been cooled, it is cast into blocks that may weigh as much as a ton.
Some refining plants produce lead alloys for specific industrial purposes. For example, adding antimony produces an alloy that is stronger than pure lead.
This makes the product suitable for pipes, sheets, cable sheathing, and ammunition.
Secondary production of lead involves recycling items such as batteries.Cable coverings, pipes, sheets and other metals can also be recycled for lead.
Recycling lead is simple and accounts for half of all lead production. In Europe and the United States, the recycling rate of lead from batteries is 99%.
Smelters separate the components of batteries such as the lead, paste, plastics, and electrolytes (acid). The lead particles are processed in blast furnaces where they are refined for use in new batteries.
Lead obtained from recycling is equal in quality and purity to lead obtained from mining.
Top Lead Producing Countries And Reserves
|Rank||Flag||Region||World Mine Production (Thousand Metric Tons)|
|#3||United States of America||335,000|
The Biggest Lead Reserves By Country
These are the reserves of each country as reported by the United States Geological Survey (USGS):
|Rank||Flag||Country||Thousands of Metric Tons|
Lead is ductile, dense and has a low melting point. It also corrosion-resistant and can absorb radiation well. As a result, many industries rely on lead for their products.
Expert Opinions on Lead
Experts are generally bullish about lead prices. Increased crackdowns on smog in China are leading authorities to scrutinize the lead industry.
These actions have the potential to curtail supply in the world’s largest lead-producing country:
“We’re hearing that there are a lot more inspections, monitoring and maybe some temporary shutdowns, generally constraints on lead producers.”
Robin Bhar, head of metals research at Societe Generale
Bhar notes that a combination of low inventories and growing demand could also help lift prices:
“We have a chunky deficit, a winter demand uptick, we’ve had a fairly cold snap in Europe that’s boosting demand, and inventories are low within the whole lead supply chain.”
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