Tin is the glue of the technology revolution, with just under 40% of all tin consumed as solder in semiconductors and electronic circuitry. Well-known applications include containers and traditional lead-acid batteries; however, considerable research is being conducted into the potential use of tin in newer technologies including lithium-ion batteries, smart home devices, electric vehicles, and the 5G network.
China represents over half of global refined tin production and primary tin consumption. Tin has historically only been produced in a small number of countries which has left prices vulnerable to any supply disruptions.
The tin market has been in deficit since 2016, with refined tin production below 380ktpa since 2014. Tin prices have suffered from several years of volatility including US-China trade tensions and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March 2020, as much of the world entered lockdown periods, LME cash prices for tin have risen from a four-year low below US$14,000/t to prices breaching $32,000/t in May 2021 – 10 year high.
Global tin demand is buoyed by several new applications set to snowball over the next ten years. The rollout of 5G networks is set to boost the telecommunications and other electronics sectors. Smartphones and conventional mobile phones account for nearly half of all consumer electronics and, with demand for traditional mobile phones rapidly falling, a boost to smartphone demand will be critical to increased refined tin use in consumer electronics. Over the last decade, the emergence of smart home devices has boosted consumer electronics output; such devices accounted for only 2% of production in 2011 but rose to nearly 24% of the total in 2019.
The use of tin in Lithium-ion battery anodes is a sector that has shown some of the highest growth over the last decade. This trend is set to continue over the next ten years, with the degree of vehicle electrification expected to increase substantially over the coming decade.
2020 saw tin demand fall for the first year since 2015, after four years of consistent growth. This fall can be attributed to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with widespread disruption to economic and social activities around the world and implications for numerous industries and supply chains.
The use of tin in electronic solder is the largest end-use market; however the markets and end users are changing. The miniaturisation of electronic devices and new manufacturing techniques have reduced the specific consumption of solder – and the amount of tin – used per unit. For example tin in solders is estimated to have fallen from 54% of total use in 2006 to around 44% in 2020.
Meanwhile other tin applications have gained in importance, including the use of tin in chemicals and in valve-regulated lead-acid (VRLA) batteries. Additionally, the use of tin in lithium-ion batteries, mainly in anode electrode materials, is an important potential use for tin over the next decade. As volumes of tin used in these applications increase, these markets provide the basis for future growth, offsetting the declining use of tin in solders and tinplate.
Roskill forecasts indicate that total market demand for refined tin will exceed 515kt by 2030, most of it accounted for by electronic and industrial solder (40%), but with a substantial rise of the share in Lithium-ion batteries (9%).
Demand increases will require substantial amounts of new refined supply, requiring additional tin feedstock sources (mine and secondary supply). With refined production well under capacity, it is considered that mine supply is the bottleneck in the tin market.
Over the outlook period, refined supply is largely expected to ramp up to meet demand, especially if pushed by Lithium-ion batteries toward the latter stages of the decade. Over the outlook period, periods of feedstock supply deficit are forecast. This highlights that more new supply will be required towards 2030 (labelled as required additional supply). This will come from either other production from primary producers or additional output from secondary producers.
*Information from Roskill Tin: Outlook to 2030 (12th Edition)