Tin 2020: A Guide To Tin Production, Use Cases, And Economic Value


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Tin is a metal commodity used in a variety of industries. In this commodity guide, we discuss some common uses of tin, why tin is valuable, and how tin is produced.

If you prefer straight facts and numbers, you can jump ahead and see the top tin producing countries and the countries with the biggest tin reserves.

We’ve included a brief summary of expert opinions on tin as a commodity, too.

Main Uses Of Tin

Tin has two forms in which it occurs:

  • White Tin: A malleable silvery-white metal that occurs at room temperature.
  • Grey Tin: A powdery, brittle substance that occurs at low temperatures.

White tin has a number of industrial applications, while grey tin has no known uses.

Uses Description
Coating Metal
The resistance of tin to corroding makes it a popular choice to coat other metals. Tin cans, for example, are made of aluminum or steel and coated with tin.  
Alloys

magnet

Tin combines with other metals to form strong alloys. Soft solder, pewter, bronze and phosphor bronze are examples of common tin alloys. Niobium-tin alloys produce superconducting magnets.
Window Glass

magnet
The Pilkington process uses a molten bath of tin to produce flat sheet glass.
Tin Chloride

magnet
This tin salt is used as a reducing agent and as part of the process for dyeing calico and silk.

Why is Tin Valuable?

Tin is an element that, when refined, is a soft, pliable, silvery-white metal. It resists corrosion and, therefore, is often used as a protective coating for other metals.

Tin also forms useful alloys with many other common metals including copper.

Archaeological evidence shows that tin was first mined and processed in Turkey around 3,500 BC.

The Combination Of Tin And Copper

Ancient metalworkers discovered that combining tin with copper formed a strong alloy (bronze) that could be crafted into durable weapons and tools.

This discovery ushered in the Bronze Age, which lasted for the next 2,000 years.

Bronze Swords via Dbachmann on Wikimedia Commons
Bronze Swords via Dbachmann on Wikimedia

Other civilizations around the world soon began using tin in a variety of ways.

Metalworkers on the peninsula where Thailand is now located were producing bronze from tin around 1,600 BC.

The metal was discovered in relics in Mexico and Peru that date prior to the Spanish conquest of the 1500s. In the Roman Empire, tin served as a plating material to help keep copper vessels bright.

Tin’s Value In The Modern Era

The modern era also saw its share of important innovations in tin usage. In 1839, American inventor Isaac Babbitt created an alloy of tin, copper, and antimony that was adopted for use in bearings.

The new alloy helped facilitate the development of high-speed machinery and transportation.

In 1952, the English glassmaking firm Pilkington invented a revolutionary way to produce perfectly flat sheet glass using molten tin as a key part of the production process.

Today mines worldwide extract more than 280,000 metric tons of tin annually.

Manufacturers use the metal in applications ranging from soldering to plating to alloys. As a result, tin is a key industrial metal in global markets.

How is Tin Produced?

The supply of tin derives from two sources:

  1. Mining – Primary production
  2. Recycling – Secondary production

Mining provides most of the supply, although the United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates the quantity recovered from recycling in the United States represented 30% of total consumption.

Primary Production

The earth’s crust contains nine tin-bearing ores.

However, only the opaque and translucent cassiterite ore contains enough of the element for viable commercial production of tin.

Tin mining techniques vary by location of the deposits.

In Bolivia and England, where deposits reside deep beneath the surface, miners use tunnels to reach the ore. Deposits in these locations usually contain between 0.8% and 1.0% tin by weight.

Tin Production In Asia

In Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, gravel along streambeds contains tin ores. Dredges and pumps remove these ores, which may contain as little as 0.15% tin.

Gravel deposits account for more than 80% of global tin production.

Once miners extract tin ores, they go through a series of chemical filtering steps to obtain increasingly greater concentrations of tin.

Filtering

Revolving screens and shakers dredge the gravel and separate the tin ores from sand and other debris.

If the deposits are located above the water level, then water jets break up the rocks and trap the mixture in artificial ponds.

Pumps then send the mixture into wooden troughs. Wooden slats called riffles trap the tin ore and separate it from sand and debris.

Concentrating

The ores first pass through vibrating screens, which remove coarse foreign particles.

Next, classifying tanks filled with water perform further filtering.

Sometimes, mining facilities use flotation tanks containing chemicals for additional filtration.

Smelting

The concentrated tin is placed in furnaces with either coal or fuel oil. The materials are then heated to a temperature of about 2,550 degrees Fahrenheit.

At this point, carbon in the furnace reacts with carbon dioxide to produce carbon monoxide.

The carbon monoxide then reacts with the cassiterite to form crude tin and carbon dioxide.

Sometimes blast furnace slags – residual products from heating tin – form in the furnace. These products get heated again in a second furnace to recover additional tin.

Refining

Crude tin from the smelting is placed in a low-temperature furnace. Tin has a much lower melting point than other metals.

As a result, when refiners raise the temperature in the furnace, the tin melts, while other metals in the mixture remain in solid form.

Tin Refining Floor Irvinebank Company's Treatment Works Irvinebank 1909 via Queensland Government Mining Journal on Wikimedia
Tin Refining Floor, Irvinebank Company’s Treatment Works, Irvinebank 1909 via Queensland Government Mining Journal on Wikimedia

Poling kettles collect the tin in a process known as liquidation. The molten tin is then boiled to remove additional impurities. At this stage in the process, the tin is 99.80% pure.

If applications require even higher purity, electrolytic refining plants can use electrical currents to remove the remaining impurities such as bismuth and lead.

Secondary Production

Recycling tin is an economically viable activity.

Recycling Metal via Pixabay
Recycling Metal via Pixabay

In the United States, two de-tinning plants and 75 secondary, non-ferrous metal-processing plants processed more than 80% of the recycled tin in recent years.

Top Tin Producing Countries

World map of Biggest Tin Producing Countries

China is the leading tin mining country in the world. It produces more than 30% of the annual supply of the metal.

RankFlagCountryThousands of Metric Tons
#1Flag of ChinaChina100,000
#2Flag of IndonesiaIndonesia55,000
#3Flag of MyanmarBurma33,000
#4Flag of BrazilBrazil26,000
#5Bolivia FlagBolivia20,000
#6Flag of PeruPeru18,000
#7Flag of AustraliaAustralia7,000
#8Flag of VietnamVietnam5,400
#9Flag of CongoCongo (Kinshasa) 5,200
#10Flag of MalaysiaMalaysia4,000

Biggest Tin Reserves By Country

These are the reserves of each country as reported by the USGS:

RankFlagCountryMetric Tons
#1Flag of ChinaChina1,100,000
#2Flag of IndonesiaIndonesia800,000
#3Flag of BrazilBrazil700,000
#4Bolivia FlagBolivia400,000
#5Flag of RussiaRussia350,000

What Drives the Price of Tin?

The price of tin is driven mostly by these five factors:

  1. Soldering Demand
  2. Global Stocks
  3. Chinese Supply and Demand
  4. Government Policies
  5. Input Prices

Soldering Demand

Approximately 50% of the world supply of tin is used in solder, although this number has been declining in recent years.

Soldering
Soldering via Pixabay

In the early- to mid-2000s, tin demand remained strong as manufacturers replaced lead with tin in soldering applications.

However, beginning in 2012, falling demand for consumer electronics and appliances caused a decline in tin demand.

Trader should pay careful attention to demand for applications that require soldering for clues about future tin prices.

Global Stocks

The London Metals Exchange (LME) keeps track of global stock levels for tin and other industrial metals. Traders follow these inventory levels closely for clues about supply shortages or surpluses.

If inventory levels drop, the market may be facing a shortage of tin supply in the near future. This could lead to higher prices for the metal.

Similarly, if stockpiling occurs and inventory levels expand, then the market might face an oversupply of the metal, which can lead to lower prices.

One interesting development with base metals such as tin is the increasing importance of inventories held at the Shanghai Futures Exchange (SFE).

Traders should monitor the change in tin inventories at both exchanges for clues about tin supply and prices.

Chinese Supply and Demand

China is the world’s largest tin consumer and supplier, so activity in this country can affect tin prices.

In recent years, the Chinese economy has slowed from its torrid pace of growth over the previous 15 to 20 years. As a result, China’s appetite for a variety of base metals has waned.

For tin prices to perform well, the Chinese economy will need to accelerate its growth rate.

How Does Environmental Awareness Impact Tin Prices?

Another factor impacting tin in China is the country’s increasing environmental awareness.

Poor air quality in China has forced the government to take a harder look at the mining industry as a contributor to pollution.

New environmental standards in China can impact the price of tin in two key ways:

  1. The regulations can reduce the supply of refined tin exported from the country. (This would support higher tin prices).
  2. It could reduce the demand for tin ore imports into China since these require pollution-producing processing. (This could lead to lower prices).

Government Policies

Government trade policies can impact tin prices.

Historically, Indonesia has been a leading exporter of tin. However, the country has also banned tin exports in recent years.

The rationale for this policy was a desire by the government to support the domestic smelting industry. Ultimately, budget deficits in Indonesia led to a resumption of exports.

Actions by the Indonesian government and other leading tin producers can impact supplies and prices.

Input Prices

Tin occurs in cassiterite ore bodies, and breaking down these ore bodies to extract the metal expends energy. Producing tin requires ample supplies of coal, electricity and crude oil.

Mines and blast furnaces utilize energy to extract tin ores from the ground and process it into tin. These costs can have a big effect on primary production.

Similarly, the costs of scrap metal can impact the price of secondary production.

tin scrap
Scrap metal via Pixabay

Expert Opinions on Tin

One leading tin analyst predicts modest gains for the metal in the near future.

He believes stricter Chinese environmental regulations could reduce output and keep the metal in a supply deficit over the coming month.

However, he believes the market has anticipated much of this news, so gains could be muted:

“Despite the shortfall, prices will increase marginally, as tin has been suffering from a chronic deficit, which has already been penciled in by the market.”

Ricard Torné, head of economic research, FocusEconomics

One tin mining CEO expects an even larger supply deficit to emerge and prices to react positively:

Tin expert Warren Hallam

“We would expect a more modest rise in tin prices as the market remains in deficit.”

Warren Hallam, CEO, Metals X

Further Reading

Once you’ve learned about tin as a commodity, you may be interested in ways to trade it with regulated online brokers in our Tin Trading Guide.

Alongside our general precious metals guide, our team has written other articles about metal commodities:

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