INSIGHT: Soft demand may lead to new TiO2 applications

24 July 2012 15:48  [Source: ICIS news]

By Bobbie Clark

TiO2 is used in paintHOUSTON (ICIS)--New applications for titanium dioxide (TiO2) may become a priority now that demand has softened.

Traditionally, TiO2 is used as a white pigment in paints and plastics and in sunscreen because it absorbs ultra-violet (UV) rays.

But scientists have discovered that TiO2 can be used in many more applications.

A recent study by a team of German scientists showed that lawn chairs made with TiO2-infused plastic cleaned themselves.

UV light activates free radicals in the chemical that kill organisms like bacteria and fungi, which typically form on plastic lawn furniture left outdoors.

TiO2’s self-cleaning powers have also been applied to cell phones and smartphones.

Scientists at the Frauhofer Institute for Surface Engineering and Thin Films in Braunschweig, Germany, found that fingerprints on glass coated with TiO2 disappeared after an hour of sunlight.

The discovery could result in a new, potentially lucrative market for TiO2.

The smartphone market is rapidly growing both in the US and abroad.

According to statistics from the Pew Research Center, 46% of US adults now own a smartphone, that’s up from 35% in May of 2011. Forrester Research predicts that by 2016 1bn people worldwide will own a smartphone, with 257m in the US.

That’s welcome news for a market with depressed demand.

For the first time in over three years, US producers in 2012 have been unable to push through a quarterly price increase.

Third-quarter domestic contract values rolled over from the second quarter at $2.00-$2.12/lb, as assessed by ICIS.

Prices have been on the rise since the fourth quarter of 2009, when contracts were at $1.09-1.19/lb. Higher white pigment prices have increased costs and squeezed margins for the world’s paint makers and other manufacturers.

But so far in 2012, soft TiO2 demand has kept inventories high, and many market players believe demand will remain depressed for the rest of the year.

Slower economic growth in China, specifically in the construction industry, and Europe’s economic woes have played a large part in the demand decline, said Tronox CEO Tom Casey.

US-based Tronox is one of the largest TiO2 producers in the world and recently became vertically integrated with the acquisition of Exxaro’s mineral sands mines.

Casey said long-term TiO2 growth has historically followed global gross domestic product (GDP), adding that Tronox expects the TiO2 market to grow by 2.5-3.5% long term.

“TiO2 is a quality of life product,” he said. As people move up the economic ladder, they consume more TiO2-based products.”

Demand will be soft until China’s economic growth picks up and there is “greater certainty or stability in Europe as well as North America,” Casey said.

But not everyone believes demand will stay depressed for the rest of the year.

A DuPont executive recently said demand should rebound in 2012. DuPont is the world’s largest TiO2 producer.

“We expect demand for TiO2 to be stronger than that of ore due in part to changes in inventory levels,” said Boo Ching Chong, president of DuPont’s TiO2 business.

Additional reporting by Larry Terry

By: Bobbie Clark
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