Lead As A Commodity – What You Need To Know In 2020


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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.

We further explore how lead is produced, which countries produce the most of it, and which countries have the biggest lead reserves to date.

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 LeadDescription
Batteries
batteries
The chemical properties of lead make it a mainstay in batteries and storage technologies for renewable energy sources.
Protective Shielding
radiation symbol
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
bullets
The physical properties of lead make it the ideal metal for manufacturing bullets.
Sheets and industrial parts
lead sheet
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

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:

Galena

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:

  • Silver
  • Copper
  • Zinc
  • Cadmium
  • Antimony
  • Arsenic

Cerussite

Cerrusite is a mineral also known as white lead.

Anglesite

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:

  1. Ore concentration
  2. Smelting
  3. Refining

Ore concentration

Lead and zinc ores usually occur together, and they often contain other valuable metals such as gold, silver, and copper. The first step, then, is to isolate the lead in the ores.

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.

Lead Blast Furnace via T.A Rickard on Wikimedia
Lead Blast Furnace via T.A Rickard on Wikimedia

Smelting

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.

Refining

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

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%.

Recycling Lead in a Lead Acid Battery Recovery Facility via NIOSH on Wikimedia
Recycling Lead in a Lead Acid Battery Recovery Facility via NIOSH on Wikimedia

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

Biggest Lead Producing Countries

China is by far the leading country to lead mine production. It accounts for about half of all output, which is more than five times the next largest producer, Australia.

RankFlagRegionWorld Mine Production (Thousand Metric Tons)
#1Flag of ChinaChina2,400,000
#2Flag of AustraliaAustralia500,000
#3Flag of USAUnited States of America335,000
#4Flag of PeruPeru310,000
#5Flag of MexicoMexico250,000
#6Flag of RussiaRussia225,000
#7Flag of IndiaIndia135,000
#8Bolivia FlagBolivia80,000
#9Flag of SwedenSweden76,000
#10Flag of TurkeyTurkey75,000

The Biggest Lead Reserves By Country

These are the reserves of each country as reported by the United States Geological Survey (USGS):

RankFlagCountryThousands of Metric Tons
#1Flag of AustraliaAustralia35,000
#2Flag of ChinaChina17,000
#3Flag of RussiaRussia6,400
#4Flag of PeruPeru6,300
#5Flag of MexicoMexico5,600

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:

Lead experts - Robin Bhar

“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.”

Further Reading

You can find out where and how to trade lead in our Lead Trading Guide. Our team also created a guide on precious metals, along with other metal commodity guides.

You may find the following metal commodity guides insightful:

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