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Tin: the glue that binds the human world and virtual reality

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A number of African countries host good deposits of tin. Image credit; Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

Tin: the glue that binds the human world and virtual reality

Tin, on the US list of critical minerals, doesn’t make the headlines often. Yet, it is expected to benefit from increased demand for electric vehicles, renewable energy and advanced robotics.

By Leon Louw founder of WhyAfrica

Tin is mostly still associated with the traditional tin cans to preserve food. According to Reuters the production of tin cans has been in long-term decline as steel-makers use thinner coatings and the packaging sector shifts towards alternative materials such as aluminium.

Moreover, at a global production of about 360,000tonner per annum, the tin market is small – not a story that will lure fund managers and investors.

But tin is making a comeback and could, with reason, be described as the forgotten green mineral. What’s more, not many new tin mines are expected to come online soon.

At the same time tin production from existing global producers have declined significantly over the last few years, for a number of operational and geopolitical reasons.

Tin usage has, over several decades, evolved away from long-life food preservation to nano-soldering in electronics and other uses in the great energy transition.

According to the International Tin Association, soldering will drive increased tin demand as the world tries to adapt to the fourth industrial revolution and AI, currently in full swing.

Thus, tin binds the machines needed to interface with the virtual and robotic worlds.

The glue that binds two worlds (Tin: the glue that binds the human world and virtual reality)

Tin is literally the glue that binds together the machines needed to interface with the virtual and robotic worlds.

According to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tin is the metal that would gain, by far, the most from new technology and robotics.

With the world scrambling to find new tin deposits, Africa could be the answer. Countries like Nigeria, Rwanda, Burundi, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) host significant deposits of tin.

The DRC is home to Alphamin’s Bisie tin project in North Kivu, and Namibia to Andrada Mining’s Uis mine, currently two of the better known African tin producers. Both these mines are ramping up in anticipation of a looming supply shortage in the tin market.

Geopolitics and the crisis in Ukraine have further stirred interest in Africa as the energy transition gains momentum.

The global energy crisis and shortage of gas in Europe forced countries reliant on Russian and Ukrainian oil and gas, to find immediate solutions. Most turned to Africa’s hydrocarbon producers, and coal, oil and gas companies in Africa made a killing in 2022 and will continue to do so in the next three to five years.

But the hydrocarbon solution is a short-term plan. The world is investing in more and more renewable energy projects, which bodes well for the future of the tin mining sector.

Tin critical for solar power (Tin: the glue that binds the human world and virtual reality)

 Tin is crucial for solar power infrastructure. Solar panels are formed of many individual solar cells, connected by “solar ribbon”. This ribbon is a copper wire, coated in a thin layer of tin solder.

The ribbon carries the charge to the edge of the panel, where it feeds into junction boxes. This electrical system also requires solder connections for which tin is used, as does the grid infrastructure.

According to the International Tin Association (ITA) the use of tin in the solar sector has been rapid, growing more than six-fold in the past decade. ITA estimates the solar industry will have used over 22,000 tonnes of tin in 2022, passing the 20,000 tonne threshold.

Although the conversion from fossil fuels to renewables is gaining traction globally, most countries in the developing world still rely on coal to power their fledging economies. However, coal demand is expected to ease off in the near future, putting the focus squarely on renewables, especially in countries like China, where demand for solar power is at an all-time high.

According to Keisuke Sadamori, the International Energy Association’s (IEA’s) Director of Energy Markets and Security the world is close to a peak in fossil fuel use, with coal set to be the first to decline. “However, we are not there yet,” says Sadamori. “Coal demand is stubborn and will likely reach an all-time high this year, pushing up global emissions.

“At the same time, there are many signs that today’s crisis is accelerating the deployment of renewables, energy efficiency and heat pumps – and this will moderate coal demand in the coming years.”

All eyes on China (Tin: the glue that binds the human world and virtual reality)

The world’s eyes will be on a Chinese recovery in 2023 and how the country navigates the energy transition through investment in the renewable sector. Currently, China is the world’s top consumer of tin and is a significant producer and huge market for photovoltaic solar panels (PVs).

Growth in the tin sector has been driven predominately by China, dominating production with an estimated 85% market share.

According to the ITA the PV industry now makes up 10% of China’s tin use and is already its third largest end-use sector. Demand for solar power does not seem likely to slow.

The ITA states that optimistic installation forecasts of 100GW for China in 2022 have been suggested – an 82% YoY increase from an already record breaking 2021. “Perhaps unsurprisingly, a record number of modules were also exported to Europe, exacerbated this year by the drive away from reliance on Russian gas.”

Africa’s tin mines gear up for shortfall (Tin: the glue that binds the human world and virtual reality)

Most tin analysts agree that tin supply is heading for a fall and Africa’s tin mines are well positioned to take advantage of the supply gap.

All the major tin mines in the world have been through the maelstrom over the last three years, and Africa’s world-class operations like Alphamin’s Bisie Complex in the DRC and Andrada Mining’s Uis deposit in Namibia are waiting in the wings.

There is reason for concern about an imminent supply cliff as the world’s major tin producing regions continue to come under pressure amid tighter regulatory constraints, supply chain challenges and political and economic instability and market volatility.

Four countries produce 73% of global tin concentrate. Although China’s tin producers remain the mainstay of global supply, the country’s mined tin output has remained flat for more than a decade. At the same time, Indonesian on-shore mining has been declining for a number of years with damaging export restrictions looming.

In addition, on shore alluvial resources, historically the swing producer, are close to depletion while off-shore mining operations have been forced to move deeper with associated cost increases as the mining companies scramble to find and mine smaller deposits.

Myanmar, traditionally the highest grade tin producer of the world, has seen a remarkable depletion of its high grade surface material and in an effort to maintain output, mines have been venturing underground to access and mine lower grade ore deposits. In an effort to restore its declining production profile to levels las seen 10 years ago, Peru has commissioned tailings retreatment.

Tin: the glue that binds the human world and virtual reality

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Tin: the glue that binds the human world and virtual reality

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