Tin has replaced lead in electronic solder ©images-of-elements.com
Tin has replaced lead in electronic solder ©images-of-elements.com

Solder & soldiers: the rise of tin

Will Green is news editor of Supply Management
19 January 2018

Though relatively insignificant in the metals market, tin plays a vital role in modern trade

Tin was put on the commodity map by solder and soldiers. The first came with the demise of lead in electronic solder and the second through the rise of conflict minerals funding fighting in Africa.

In the noughties, electronics companies became concerned that the lead in the solder used to make circuit boards was giving off toxic fumes, and in 2006 the EU banned the use of lead and other heavy metals in consumer goods. Manufacturers cast about for an alternative and settled on tin.

Before then, tin was primarily used for lining food cans. But once it entered the supply chains of Apple and Samsung in 2006, the price rocketed.

In the 1970s 28% of the world’s tin went into solder, but by 2009 it was more than 50%. Global consumption ballooned from a decade average of 2.4m tonnes in the 1990s to 3.2m tonnes in the noughties.

Trading prices, averaging $7,380 a tonne in 2005, had doubled in 2007 to $14,536, going on to hit $26,053 in 2011. And even though the price of tin stalled in London in early 2017 – blamed on China’s production dominance – it still averaged $20,376 in October 2017.

Global production in 2016 was 280,000 tonnes, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS), compared to 180,000 in 1995. The biggest producers are China (100,000 tonnes in 2016) and Indonesia (55,000 tonnes), while the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) turned out 5,200 tonnes in 2016.

Minerals in the DRC have a murky past. The tin there is considered pure, making it valuable. The spike in tin prices in the noughties coincided with the rise of armed groups, who were able to exploit isolated mines to fund conflicts involving neighbouring Rwanda. In 2008 it was estimated such groups earned £185m from tin, tantalum, gold and tungsten by directly running mines or ‘taxing’ them. Most of this income came from tin.

It was through the work of NGOs and journalists that the world became aware of what was happening in the DRC, leading to the regulation around conflict minerals we have today.

Mining company Alphamin says it obtained the title to a mine at Bisie in 2006, but due to militia activity it was unable to operate it until 2011. “We were violently removed,” Alphamin CEO Boris Khamstra told SM.

It is on track to become the first large commercial tin mine in the east of the DRC when production starts in 2019. He says: “Our metal will be easy to verify as conflict-free, with source of origin all the way to the smelter.”

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