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Magnesium might be familiar due to its presence in food supplements and in leafy vegetables, deemed vital for healthy bones and good circulation, but magnesium is also a key industrial metal that is used primarily to strengthen aluminum alloys. The lightest of all structural metals, it is also used to remove sulfur in producing iron and steel, and to inoculate cast iron.
Demand for magnesium has grown steadily at about 3 percent each year, with the biggest growth seen in the car parts industry, where magnesium is used for die-casting. Specifically, magnesium can be found in automobile parts such as steering wheels and support brackets. Magnesium is not only 40 percent lighter than aluminum, it is also as strong as steel.
Approximately 130,000 metric tons of magnesium was used for die casting in 2010 and that number is expected to continue to rise steadily in coming years. Magnesium is also used in electronic devices including cell phones, laptops, and other products that benefit from its light weight and sturdiness.
Magnesium is an alkaline earth metal and the eighth most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. It is highly soluble, and is the third most abundant element dissolved in seawater.
In terms of weaknesses, the metal is extremely corrosive and can be highly flammable. Still, magnesium alloys are used in a number of industrial applications, and are favoured for some airplane parts and bicycle parts due to the lightness of the metal.
Magnesium supply and production
While there are many uses for magnesium, the market for the metal is relatively small. In 2010, total global production reached 750,000 metric tons while consumption averaged 670,000 metric tons. Production has increased by over 70 percent since 2000, but the global market for magnesium is about the same size as some single large-scale aluminum smelters.
Over 80 percent of the magnesium produced in the world comes from China, where there are about 250 to 300 small- and mid-sized plants across the country which produce the metal. There are a total of eight major US, European and former CIS countries that produce magnesium on a large scale. Almost all new magnesium projects outside of China in recent years have been abandoned or put on hold because investors have not seen them as financially attractive.
The magnesium produced in China, which accounts for over half of the metal found worldwide, uses the Pidgeon process, developed during World War II, which processes the metal in batches more cheaply using ferrosilicon as the reductant.
However, the Chinese government has become increasingly worried about the environmental damage caused by the smaller producers, and the USGS recently told the Investing News Network that industrial metals investors would be wise to watch for signs of mine shutdowns in China.
Outside of China, US Magnesium is the largest producer of the metal in the world, and the only producer in the United States.
Amid concerns about a steady supply of magnesium, some car makers have shied away from investing heavily in producing magnesium-heavy auto parts. Still, demand for magnesium is expected to continue rising especially in the automobile industry as governments and automakers alike look to bolster production of fuel-efficient cars.