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China Consumes Mind-Boggling Amounts of Raw Materials [Chart]

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China Consumes Mind-Boggling Amounts of Raw Materials [Chart]

China Consumes Mind-Boggling Amounts of Raw Materials [Chart]

The Chart of the Week is a weekly Visual Capitalist feature on Fridays.

Over the last 20 years, the world economy has relied on the Chinese economic growth engine more than it would like to admit. The 1.4 billion people living in the world’s most populous country account for 13% of global GDP, which is significant no matter how it is interpreted. However, in the commodity sector, China has another magnitude of importance. The fact is that China consumes mind-bending amounts of materials, energy, and food. That’s why the prospect of slowing Chinese growth is likely to continue as a source of nightmares for investors focused on the commodity sector.

The country consumes a big proportion of the world’s materials used in infrastructure. It consumes 54% of aluminum, 48% of copper, 50% of nickel, 45% of all steel, and 60% of concrete. In fact, the country has consumed more concrete in the last three years than the United States did in all of the 20th century.

China is also prolific in accumulating precious metals – the country buys or mines 23% of gold and 15% of the world’s silver supply.

With many mouths to feed, China also needs large amounts of food. About 30% of rice, 22% of corn, and 17% of wheat gets eaten by the Chinese.

Lastly, the country is no hack in terms of burning fuel either. Notably, China uses 49% of coal for power generation as well as metallurgical processes in making steel. It also uses 13% of the world’s uranium and 12% of all oil.

These facts really hit home to show how important China is to the global consumption of raw materials. If China is unable to navigate its tricky transition to a consumer-driven economy and has a “hard landing”, it will be unlikely to see any growth in commodity prices triggered from the demand side. That said, supply is equally as important and it tells a different story: with companies like Glencore cutting copper production by 400,000 tons to better service its massive debt, the floor for commodities could be in.

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Mining

Visualizing 50 Years of Global Steel Production

Global steel production has tripled over the past 50 years, with China’s steel production eclipsing the rest of the world.

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Visualizing 50 Years of Global Steel Production

This was originally posted on Elements. Sign up to the free mailing list to get beautiful visualizations on natural resource megatrends in your email every week.

From the bronze age to the iron age, metals have defined eras of human history. If our current era had to be defined similarly, it would undoubtedly be known as the steel age.

Steel is the foundation of our buildings, vehicles, and industries, with its rates of production and consumption often seen as markers for a nation’s development. Today, it is the world’s most commonly used metal and most recycled material, with 1,864 million metric tons of crude steel produced in 2020.

This infographic uses data from the World Steel Association to visualize 50 years of crude steel production, showcasing our world’s unrelenting creation of this essential material.

The State of Steel Production

Global steel production has more than tripled over the past 50 years, despite nations like the U.S. and Russia scaling down their domestic production and relying more on imports. Meanwhile, China and India have consistently grown their production to become the top two steel producing nations.

Below are the world’s current top crude steel producing nations by 2020 production.

RankCountrySteel Production (2020, Mt)
#1🇨🇳 China1,053.0
#2🇮🇳 India99.6
#3🇯🇵 Japan83.2
#4🇷🇺 Russia*73.4
#5🇺🇸 United States72.7
#6🇰🇷 South Korea67.1
#7🇹🇷 Turkey35.8
#8🇩🇪 Germany35.7
#9🇧🇷 Brazil31.0
#10🇮🇷 Iran*29.0

Source: World Steel Association. *Estimates.

Despite its current dominance, China could be preparing to scale back domestic steel production to curb overproduction risks and ensure it can reach carbon neutrality by 2060.

As iron ore and steel prices have skyrocketed in the last year, U.S. demand could soon lessen depending on the Biden administration’s actions. A potential infrastructure bill would bring investment into America’s steel mills to build supply for the future, and any walkbalk on the Trump administration’s 2018 tariffs on imported steel could further soften supply constraints.

Steel’s Secret: Infinite Recyclability

Made up primarily of iron ore, steel is an alloy which also contains less than 2% carbon and 1% manganese and other trace elements. While the defining difference might seem small, steel can be 1,000x stronger than iron.

However, steel’s true strength lies in its infinite recyclability with no loss of quality. No matter the grade or application, steel can always be recycled, with new steel products containing 30% recycled steel on average.

The alloy’s magnetic properties make it easy to recover from waste streams, and nearly 100% of the steel industry’s co-products can be used in other manufacturing or electricity generation.

It’s fitting then that steel makes up essential parts of various sustainable energy technologies:

  • The average wind turbine is made of 80% steel on average (140 metric tons).
  • Steel is used in the base, pumps, tanks, and heat exchangers of solar power installations.
  • Electrical steel is at the heart of the generators and motors of electric and hybrid vehicles.

The Steel Industry’s Future Sustainability

Considering the crucial role steel plays in just about every industry, it’s no wonder that prices are surging to record highs. However, steel producers are thinking about long-term sustainability, and are working to make fossil-fuel-free steel a reality by completely removing coal from the metallurgical process.

While the industry has already cut down the average energy intensity per metric ton produced from 50 gigajoules to 20 gigajoules since the 1960s, steel-producing giants like ArcelorMittal are going further and laying out their plans for carbon-neutral steel production by 2050.

Steel consumption and demand is only set to continue rising as the world’s economy gradually reopens, especially as Rio Tinto’s new development of atomized steel powder could bring about the next evolution in 3D printing.

As the industry continues to innovate in both sustainability and usability, steel will continue to be a vital material across industries that we can infinitely recycle and rely on.

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Mining

All the World’s Metals and Minerals in One Visualization

This massive infographic reveals the dramatic scale of 2019 non-fuel mineral global production.

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All the World’s Metals and Minerals in One Visualization

We live in a material world, in that we rely on materials to make our lives better. Without even realizing it, humans consume enormous amounts of metals and minerals with every convenient food package, impressive building, and technological innovation.

Every year, the United States Geological Service (USGS) publishes commodity summaries outlining global mining statistics for over 90 individual minerals and materials. Today’s infographic visualizes the data to reveal the dramatic scale of 2019 non-fuel mineral production.

Read all the way to the bottom; the data will surprise you.

Non-Fuel Minerals: USGS Methodology

A wide variety of minerals can be classified as “non-fuel”, including precious metals, base metals, industrial minerals, and materials used for construction.

Non-fuel minerals are those not used for fuel, such as oil, natural gas and coal. Once non-fuel minerals are used up, there is no replacing them. However, many can be recycled continuously.

The USGS tracked both refinery and mine production of these various minerals. This means that some minerals are the essential ingredients for others on the list. For example, iron ore is critical for steel production, and bauxite ore gets refined into aluminum.

Top 10 Minerals and Metals by Production

Sand and gravel are at the top of the list of non-fuel mineral production.

As these materials are the basic components for the manufacturing of concrete, roads, and buildings, it’s not surprising they take the lead.

RankMetal/Mineral2019 Production (millions of metric tons)
#1Sand and Gravel50,000
#2Cement4,100
#3Iron and Steel3,200
#4Iron Ore2,500
#5Bauxite500
#6Lime430
#7Salt293
#8Phosphate Rock240
#9Nitrogen150
#10Gypsum140

These materials fertilize the food we eat, and they also form the structures we live in and the roads we drive on. They are the bones of the global economy.

Let’s dive into some more specific categories covered on the infographic.

Base Metals

While cement, sand, and gravel may be the bones of global infrastructure, base metals are its lifeblood. Their consumption is an important indicator of the overall health of an economy.

Base metals are non-ferrous, meaning they contain no iron. They are often more abundant in nature and sometimes easier to mine, so their prices are generally lower than precious metals.

RankBase Metal2019 Production (millions of metric tons)
#1Aluminum64.0
#2Copper20.0
#3Zinc13.0
#4Lead4.5
#5Nickel2.7
#6Tin0.3

Base metals are also the critical materials that will help to deliver a green and renewable future. The electrification of everything will require vast amounts of base metals to make everything from batteries to solar cells work.

Precious Metals

Gold and precious metals grab the headlines because of their rarity ⁠— and their production shows just how rare they are.

RankPrecious Metal2019 Production (metric tons)
#1Silver27,000
#2Gold3,300
#3Palladium210
#4Platinum180

While metals form the structure and veins of the global economy, ultimately it is humans and animals that make the flesh of the world, driving consumption patterns.

A Material World: A Perspective on Scale

The global economy’s appetite for materials has quadrupled since 1970, faster than the population, which only doubled. On average, each human uses more than 13 metric tons of materials per year.

In 2017, it’s estimated that humans consumed 100.6B metric tons of material in total. Half of the total comprises sand, clay, gravel, and cement used for building, along with the other minerals mined to produce fertilizer. Coal, oil, and gas make up 15% of the total, while metal makes up 10%. The final quarter are plants and trees used for food and fuel.

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