When a US and Australian joint venture recently announced it was using boron in the manufacture of rocket engines, it was just another reminder of why this metal is so critical.
Some specialists have even labelled it as being even more important than lithium in the new energy future.
Boron was named for the mineral borax, thought to come from the Persian name burah for that mineral. Boron minerals, mainly borax, were traded over a thousand years ago, when sheep, camel, and yak caravans brought borax from desert salt beds in Persia and Tibet to India and the Arab countries. There, it was used mainly in making glass.
The major ores of boron these days are a small number of borate (boron oxide) minerals, including ulexite, borax, colemanite, and kernite. These minerals form when boron-bearing waters percolate into inland desert lakes and evaporate, leaving layers of borates, chlorides, and sulphates.
These minerals are referred to as evaporite minerals. Very large deposits of evaporite boron minerals are found in the US (especially California), Turkey, Chile, and Argentina. Less-important deposits occur in Iran and elsewhere.
Boron is widely used in the glass, ceramics, agriculture, and detergents industries, as well as other industries. Among those applications, demand from the glass industry is the largest. In 2017, about 48.58% boron went into the glass industry, while ceramic industry held 19.18% consumption globally.
Most importantly for future market growth, boron’s physical properties make it a critical material and limited substitute ingredient in everyday and future-facing applications, including in permanent magnets, electric vehicles (EVs), wind turbines, solar panels, fertilizers, and specialty glass in smartphones.
According to a recent news release from Borates Today, boron is poised to overtake lithium as the frontrunner. It is a relatively new player in the battery game, but its unique properties make it a potential game-changer.
It noted that boron is non-flammable and has higher potential energy than lithium, meaning it can store more energy in a smaller space.
Lithium prices have been skyrocketing recently due to the strong demand for lithium-ion batteries, from phones and laptops to EVs.
However, lithium supply has not kept pace with demand, leading to concerns about how long this price rally can last. Hundreds of new lithium projects are currently under development around the world, but it remains to be seen whether these will be able to meet future demand.
Borates Today says that although boron is on a similar trajectory to lithium, there are now just six new boron projects worldwide, of which only one is permitted.
Global boron market
According to Maximize Market Research, the boron market is anticipated to reach US$2.78B by 2029 from US$1.98B in 2021 at a CAGR of 4.3 % during the forecast period.
Boron nitride is a heat and chemically resistant refractory compound of boron and nitrogen with the chemical formula BN.
Meanwhile, increased usage of bulletproof armour and vests in the defense sector is projected to fuel the expansion of the boron carbide market.
The global boron carbide market is estimated to expand at a CAGR of 4.9% during the forecast period of 2022 to 2031, and a recent report by Transparency Market Research found the latest armour systems use next-generation ceramics owing to their different advantages, including low weight and superior performance during ballistic-scale impacts.
Ceramics are used in the production of personal armour and armoured vehicles. Demand for ceramics manufactured using boron carbide is increasing owing to advantages, such as hardness, high melting point, improved thermal stability, low density, neutron absorption ability, and strong chemical resistance.
Transparency Market Research says the light-weightiness of these products maximizes the mobility of ballistic armour. On the other hand, their hardness offers outstanding protection.
Boron carbide ceramics are used in armed helicopters and other aircraft as they support in improving the designs. Hence, increased usage of ceramics developed using boron carbide is leading to revenue-generation opportunities in the market.
In a new recent development, 5E Advanced Materials, Inc. (ASX: 5EA) entered into a non-binding letter of intent with Estes Energetics to collaborate in producing boron advanced materials for solid rocket motors to support the US space and military industries.
Under the terms of the letter of intent, 5E and Estes will work towards a binding agreement for the supply of boron advanced materials, which are used in the manufacture of solid rocket motor ignitors.
5E and Estes Energetics will also consider a broader collaboration focused on partnering on production facilities, business development activities and sharing technical know-how for the purpose of developing boron advanced materials and proprietary intellectual property targeting space and military applications.
The boron advanced materials used by Estes Energetics and under the terms of the LOI, align with recent US government initiatives and programmes as they are critical in military munitions and civilian applications and are subject to supply risk given overseas supply concentration and US reliance on imports.
Estes Energetics is a defense and industrial company that researches, designs, engineers, manufactures, tests, and integrates solid- propellant rocket motors, energetics, critical chemicals, and associated technologies for government and commercial customers.
It combines practical propulsion solution development with advanced aerospace research and development under one team. Estes Energetics has engineering, manufacturing, and test facilities in Penrose, Colorado, and Minden, Louisiana. Estes Energetics was spun off from Estes Industries, which is the world leader in model rocketry with more than 60 years of experience producing solid-propellant rocket motors.
“We look forward to a broad collaboration with Estes focusing on boron advanced materials necessary for space and military applications. Estes is an industry leader in the solid-propellant and aerospace markets,” Dr Dino Gnanamgari, 5E chief commercial officer, said.
“An important consideration of the collaboration is our combined mission to onshore critical materials and technologies that serve critical US government needs. We intend to have a long-term partnership with Estes as we focus on continuous innovation in the boron advanced materials space.
“This announcement continues to deliver on our strategy to become a vertically integrated global leader in the supply of boron specialty and advanced materials.”
Estes CEO, Karl Kulling, said there is a growing awareness of supply chain risk in the US.
“By collaborating with 5E, we are building a supply chain that starts from a domestic mine and continues all the way through products broadly used in solid rocket motors, pyrotechnics, and other applications. “Boron advanced materials complement our existing manufacturing and research efforts in critical chemicals and solid rocket motors. Boron is used in mature products and has great promise in high-performance fuels.”