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Chromium was not discovered until the early 19th century in the United States, where it quickly found use in the textile industry as a dye. Later it was applied to automobiles – in fact, school buses have been painted “chrome yellow” since the 1930s.
The metal is also an essential trace element that the human body needs in order to function properly, just like iron, calcium and zinc. But while supplements of chromium are available to those with glucose regulation imbalances, most people get enough chromium via a well-balanced diet.
Of course, the biggest source of demand for chromium is stainless steel industry. While early manufacturers were aware that adding chromium to steel produces a stronger alloy, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that they noticed that steel containing 5 percent chromium or more became corrosion resistant even at high temperatures.
Today, stainless steel containing 18 percent chromium and 8 percent nickel is common; chromium provides the strength, while nickel gives the product its sheen. All in all, chromium demand from the stainless steel sector now accounts for about 60 percent of the metal’s consumption.
The stainless steel industry uses chromium for myriad functions. The fact that the metal does not rust and can easily be sterilized makes it an ideal substance for many items most people use in their daily lives. It can be found in appliances throughout the home, specifically kitchen sinks, food processing equipment and cutlery. It is also the metal of choice to manufacture medical and dental equipment.
In terms of where chromium is produced, the US Geological Survey (USGS) states that in 2014, the biggest chromium producer by far was South Africa, which put out 15,000 MT. It was followed by Kazakhstan at 4,000 MT, India at 3,000 MT and Turkey at 2,400 MT. Total world chromium production that year was 29,000 MT. Reserves sit at 480,000 MT.
Though it produces no chromium, China is the largest chromium-consuming country, as per the USGS. It’s also the leading producer of ferrochrome and the top stainless steel producer; that makes sense given that chromium is consumed in the form of ferrochrome to produce stainless steel.
Moving forward, chromium supply may see some constraints. The USGS notes that in 2014, an emergency was declared in South Africa due to constrained supply of electrical power. That’s an issue for the chromium market because ferrochrome production requires a lot of energy.
And while chromium exploration is currently underway, in at least once place it’s meeting with some obstacles. That place is Canada’s Ring of Fire, located in the province of Ontario. Once lauded as having the potential to rival Alberta’s oil sands, the region has since fallen on hard times.
Trouble began when Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE:CLF) abandoned work at its chromite project there in November 2013. Though Noront Resources (TSXV:NOT) recently acquired those assets, gaining the dominant land position in the area, it will still need to contend with a variety of factors to get them up and running. In particular, infrastructure is an issue.
In any case, it will be interesting to see how work in the area progresses and how chromium fares in this interesting supply and demand situation moving forward.