Introduction to mineral sands

Mineral sands are sands that contain concentrations of the important minerals, such as zircon, titanium, rutile, ilmenite and monazite.

In Australia, the three main minerals mined from mineral sands deposits are the titanium-bearing minerals ilmenite and rutile, and the zirconium-bearing mineral zircon.

Zircon is a hard, glassy mineral used in a range of industrial and chemical applications, particularly in the manufacture of ceramics and refractories. Titanium mineral products are also used in a range of industrial and chemical applications, primarily to manufacture titanium dioxide pigment.

Mineral sands deposits are located in most states in Australia, with Western Australia the most prominent producer of mineral sands in Australia, including titanium and non-titanium minerals.

Currently, Australia is the world’s largest producer of titanium and has the world’s second-largest resources of titanium after China. Australia has the world’s largest production of zirconium and the largest resources of that metal (source: Australian Government’s Department of Industry, Innovation and Science).

Mineral sands deposits typically contain both titanium dioxide mineral and, usually a minor proportion of zircon. The two product suites have different properties, prices and distinct end use markets. The relative weighting of each mineral (known as assemblage) varies by deposit.

Assemblage can have an influence on the financial characteristics of mineral sands deposits. Unlike other minerals, where financials are typically influenced by the cash cost of production, in mineral sands projects revenue to cash cost (or margin) characteristics are important and often a better indicator of financial returns.

The industry is relatively consolidated in terms of producers, with the main three producers accounting for approximately two thirds of global production. 

Emerging applications of mineral sands include in 3D printing, where companies such as Boeing have started using 3D-printed titanium parts in the construction of commercial jets.