Titanium Fact Sheet

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Introduction

Igneous and metamorphic rocks, and the sediments that are derived from them, characteristically contain titanium minerals. Titanium occurs in rocks in the form of oxide and silicate minerals. Of greatest economic value are titanium-bearing oxide minerals such as ilmenite, rutile, anatase, brookite, perovskite and magnetite.

Rutile (titanium dioxide) and ilmenite (35% - 65% titanium dioxide) are the two primary sources of titanium products, with ilmenite the most abundant (Force, E.R, 1991). Ilmenite ore is sourced through the mining of magmatic and heavy mineral sand (also referred to as placer) deposits. Mining of mineral sands are Australia’s main source of titanium.

The principal components of heavy mineral sands are rutile (TiO2), ilmenite (FeTiO3), zircon (ZrSiO4) and monazite ([Ce,La,Th]PO4). Minor amounts of xenotime (YPO4), an yttrium-bearing phosphate hosting 54% to 65% rare earth oxides may also be present.

Rutile, ilmenite, leucoxene (an alteration product of ilmenite) are used predominantly in the production of TiO2 pigment. The titanium-bearing minerals rutile and leucoxene are sometimes blended to produce HiTi (high-grade titanium with a TiO2 content of 70% to 95%) which is used as a feedstock to produce TiO2, make titanium metals for the aerospace industry and in the manufacture of welding rods. Less than 4% of total titanium mineral production, typically rutile, is used in making titanium sponge metal.

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Occurrence

Mineral sands deposits occur along the coast of eastern Australia from central New South Wales to Cape York in Queensland. Large relic or old beach deposits are found as far inland as Ouyen in Victoria (Wemen, Bondi, Kulwin deposits) and south-western New South Wales (Gingko, Snapper deposits). In Western Australia, deposits are distributed from the southern tip of the state to Geraldton and are located at the present coastline or as relic deposits up to 35 km inland.

Heavy minerals originally occur as trace components of (generally less than 0.1%) igneous rocks such as granite, pegmatite and basalt. Highly metamorphosed rocks transformed by heat and pressure provide the best source of titanium heavy minerals. If these rocks are weathered and eroded, resistant components such as quartz and heavy minerals separate from the less resistant minerals.

As the heavy minerals are washed down to the sea they may accumulate as placer deposits in river channels or along coastal shorelines in the same way as alluvial gold. In the beach intertidal zone, sand washed up on the beach drops out as wave impacts slow. As waves wash back, some of the lighter sand is carried back into the sea, leaving the heavy minerals behind on the beach. This constant wave action leads to a concentration of the heavier minerals. These minerals are covered by the lighter sand material blown over the dunes at the back of the beach to form heavy mineral sand deposits at the front of the dunes.

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Australian Resources and Deposits

Australia is rich in mineral sand resources but, because they are mainly located at or near the coast, their mining competes with other land uses such as agriculture, national parks, urban or tourist development and recreation. Allocation of land to other uses has rendered some mineral sands resources inaccessible to exploration or mining. Geoscience Australia estimates that around 16% of ilmenite, 14% of rutile and 14% of zircon EDR is unavailable for mining. Deposits in this category include Moreton Island, Bribie Island and Fraser Island, the Cooloola sand mass, the Byfield sand mass and the Shoalwater Bay area in Queensland as well as the Yuraygir, Bundjalung, Hat Head and Myall Lakes National Parks in New South Wales.

Throughout the late 1990s, a large number of coarse-grained strandlines have been identified in the Murray Basin, which occurs within New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Over 100 million tonnes of heavy mineral sand concentrates have been outlined. Large resources of fine-grained mineral sands deposits (referred to as WIM-type deposits) occur in the Horsham region of Victoria.

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Australia in the World

Analysis by the United States Geological Survey indicates that, in 2015, Australia was a world leader in production of mineral sands and had the world's largest economic demonstrated resources of ilmenite (19%), rutile (41%) and zircon (65%). Australia produces up to 30% of the world's rutile, 35% of the world's zircon, and about 13% of the world's ilmenite. The other major producers are China, South Africa and Vietnam. Australia’s rutile, synthetic rutile, ilmenite and zircon are exported to numerous countries including, but not limited to, China, North and South America, Spain and Japan.

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Mining and Processing

Mineral sands were first mined in Australia in the 1930s at Byron Bay, on the north coast of New South Wales. By the late 1940s, rutile and zircon mining started in Queensland and further south in New South Wales. Mining of ilmenite began in the mid-1950s near Bunbury in southwest Western Australia.

Initially, only mineral-rich sand seams were mined but such seams are now uncommon and lower-grade dune material is worked on an artificial pond with a floating dredge lifting the ore from the bottom of the pond through a large suction pipe.

A barge-mounted primary concentrator that separates the heavy minerals from the sand tailings or waste is attached to the back of the dredge and, as the dredge mines slowly forward, the tailings are pumped from the concentrator to the back of the pond, progressively filling the mined area.

Some higher-grade deposits containing moderately indurated material or layers are mined using a variety of equipment such as self-loading scrapers, bucket-wheel excavators, bulldozers and front-end loaders.

Careful environmental rehabilitation of mined areas is carried out progressively as the dredge moves forward. Backfill tailings are shaped to approximate the original landform, then the original topsoil and any overburden is replaced and the area is revegetated, either with local flora or pasture grasses. Environmental monitoring continues as the vegetation matures and the area is eventually rehabilitated, as near as possible, to its previous land use, usually natural bushland or farmland. Public consultation takes place during the approval process prior to consent being given for mine establishment.

Processing

The mined heavy mineral concentrates are sent to 'dry' mills and the individual minerals are separated using their different magnetic and electrical properties at various elevated temperatures. Separation equipment includes high-tension (electrical), high-intensity magnetic and electrostatic plate separators.

Ilmenite is upgraded to synthetic rutile (>90% TiO2) by removing contained iron at plants located at Capel, Geraldton and Muchea, all in Western Australia. The technology used is called the Becher process and was developed by a joint industry and Australian government initiative in the early 1960s.

In the Becher process, ilmenite concentrate containing 55%-65% TiO2 (the rest is mainly iron oxide) is fed to a rotary kiln to reduce the iron oxide to metallic iron. Ilmenite grains are converted to porous synthetic rutile grains with metallic iron and other impurity inclusions. The iron is precipitated as hydrated iron oxide from the synthetic rutile grains and a mild acid treatment is used to dissolve the impurities and any residual iron. The grains of synthetic rutile are washed, dried and transported to titanium dioxide pigment manufacturing plants either in Australia or overseas for further processing.

An important change to the Becher process at the Geraldton plant has been the development of the Synthetic Rutile Enhancement Process, or SREP, which uses various leaching methods to reduce the level of radioactivity in the synthetic rutile product to internationally acceptable levels.

The Enterprise and the Yarraman mines at North Stradbroke Island in Queensland process their mineral sands ore to produce ilmenite, rutile and zircon concentrates.  Concentrates are transported by barge to a dry mill plant at Pinkenba near the mouth of the Brisbane River for export through the port of Brisbane (Queensland Government Department of Natural Resources and Mines, 2014).

White titanium dioxide pigment is manufactured at the Kwinana and Kemerton plants in Western Australia. These plants use the chlorination process to produce white pigment by calcining a mixture of synthetic rutile, coke and chlorine to form gaseous titanium tetrachloride (TiCl4). Ilmenite cannot be used as a raw material in the chlorination process because its titanium content is too low. The titanium tetrachloride is condensed to a liquid and most of the impurities separate as solids before it is reheated to a gas and mixed with hot oxygen to form very fine crystalline rutile (raw white pigment). The displaced chlorine gas is recycled to the start of the process. The properties of the raw pigment produced from both pigment processes are enhanced for different uses by coating the crystals with white hydrous oxides of silica, alumina, titania or zirconia (ZrO2).

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Uses

Almost all rutile and ilmenite is processed into non-toxic white titanium dioxide pigment for use in the manufacture of paints, plastics, paper, ink, rubber, textiles, cosmetics, leather and ceramics. Titanium dioxide pigment has excellent brightness and high opacity for good hiding power (e.g. in paint for covering undercoats) and has replaced lead carbonate pigments. Rutile is also used to produce light, strong, corrosion-resistant titanium metal for use in aircraft, spacecraft, motor vehicles and desalination plants. Titanium metal is biocompatible with the human body and is thus used for surgical implants such as knee and hip replacements. Rutile is used also in fibreglass, chemicals and as a coating on welding rods. Ilmenite is used as a fluxing agent in blast furnace feeds and as a sand-blasting abrasive.

Zircon, which accompanies ilmenite and rutile in mineral sands, is used in foundry sand moulds and zircon sand or powder is used for glazes on pottery and other ceramic surfaces as well as in the production of various refractory metals. Heat-resistant zirconia is used in a fused form to line ladles holding molten steel, in molten metal moulds and as small beads for abrasives. Zircon is the major source of zirconium, a corrosion-resistant metal that is used in nuclear reactors and chemical processing equipment. Research and development continues into the use of zirconium ceramics to improve diesel engines and in the metal extrusion industry where heat resistance and strength are required.

Monazite is a major source of certain rare earth elements and thorium. Rare earth elements are used in high-strength permanent magnets, catalysts, ceramics and colour television tubes. Thorium is used in incandescent gas mantles and as fuel for a few nuclear reactors.

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Suggestions for Further Reading

  • Iluka Resource Limited, Current Operations
  • Australia's Identified Mineral Resources 2013, Geoscience Australia, Canberra.
  • Hughes, F.E. (Ed) 1990 Several papers on mineral sands, in Geology of the Mineral Deposits of Australia and Papua New Guinea, Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy Monograph 14, pp 1587-1609.Morley, I.W. 1981 Black sands - a history of the mineral sand industry in Eastern Australia, University of Queensland, Brisbane.
  • Towner, R.R. (1996) Australia's resources of mineral sands - their future liersity the key to prosperity, The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Publication Series No 1/96, pp 375-384.
  • Woodcock, J.T. and Hamilton, J.K. (Eds) 1993 Numerous papers on mineral sands, in the Sir Maurice Mawby Memorial Volume, Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Monograph 19, pp 587-1609.
  • Berkman,D.A and Mackenzie,D.H. (Eds) 1998 Geology of Australian and Papua New Guinean Mineral Deposits, Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Melbourne, Monograph 22, several papers.
  • Laycock, J.W. ‎1978 North Stradbroke Island, UQ eSpace, https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:10883/lay-dgp-8-2.pdf
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