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Through The Gateway: Tin – More Than Just A Food Preserver

As part of our Through the Gateway campaign, we have so far looked at Copper and Aluminum.  Both Gateway metals only yield access to several co-product metals, but are important mainstay metals with a plethora of new applications that make them important building blocks of our high-tech, green energy future. For both Copper and Aluminum, the United States has significant known reserves, and their domestic development will continue to play a significant role going forward.

We will now turn our attention to a Gateway metal for which the story line is somewhat different – Tin.

As the BBC noted in a feature story in 2014: 

“Tin wouldn’t come anywhere near the top of most people’s list of the most important elements, yet the history of our species is very closely entwined with this dull grey metal. (…) Tin was the basis of man’s first great technological revolution.”

Indeed, according to USGS, “tin is one of the earliest metals known and used.” Its low melting point and the discovery of its hardening effect on copper, and with that the world’s first alloy, effectively ushered in the Bronze Age, during which metal weapons and tools replaced stone.  In the 19th Century, the metal found a new use revolutionizing the way we conserve food: when iron and steel cans were plated and tin and soldered with a tin alloy, the tin can was born.

While many of today’s cans have eliminated tin as a component, the name stuck, and cans and containers still account for more than 22 percent of Tin usage in the United States, followed by chemicals at 20 percent, solder at 18 percent, and alloys at 14 percent.

Tin may not be as hot as the other two Gateway metals in terms of new applications, but its versatility will continue to fuel demand for the metal.  Serving as Gateway metals for Scandium and Indium, for both of which there may be growth markets with new actual and potential applications, may further continue to drive demand.

While recycling yields about 30 percent of the Tin consumed domestically, the U.S. has remained import dependent for more than 70 percent for the past few years, with USGS pegging our degree of dependence at 75 percent in its 2016 Mineral Commodity Summaries.  For ARPN followers know that we consistently call for policies that help alleviate our reliance on foreign resources – where possible.

However, there has not been any domestic Tin mining or smelting since 1993 and 1989, respectively, and identified resources of Tin in the United States are insignificant when compared with the rest of the world.  Our main supplier nations include Bolivia – arguably not one of our stronger trade partners – and Peru.

As we’ve stated for Aluminum, where Canadian imports help the U.S. close a 3.4 million ton domestic aluminum production shortfall, the case of Tin once more underscores the complexity of the geopolitics of resource supply, of which trade is an important facet.

A further layer of complexity is added by the fact that a new WTO case is currently being brought on by the EU against China, the world’s largest tin producer. The EU alleges that China is once again violating WTO rules with its restrictions on exports of various metals and minerals, including tin.  While this development may not have a direct impact on Tin supply in the U.S., it goes to show that resource policy cannot occur in a vacuum, but must take into account the multi-dimensional nature of geopolitics.

Our trip Through the Gateway will take us to Tin’s co-products Indium and Scandium next.