by Christian Schmalz, Marketing Director, UlexAndes-USA and Nikhil Kapadia, General Manager, Eco Fusion
The boron fertilizer industry is mature, defined, well developed and dominated by large multinational companies. Market competition is multi-factorial, wide-ranging, and influenced by a multitude of macro- and micro-environmental variables. Direct and indirect competition exists both internationally and domestically. Despite this challenging environment, niche markets offering high quality, customized compounds continue to gain market share.
In developed micronutrient markets, many types of firms operate along the fertilizer value chain including: suppliers, manufacturers, blenders, wholesalers, retailers and equipment suppliers. Suppliers often vary by nutrient and may not exist solely to support the fertilizer manufacturing industry (e.g. natural gas production). Others would not exist without it (e.g. phosphate mines). Although major manufacturing firms tend to focus on bulk commodity pricing and markets, smaller companies still have a market presence filling a particular nutrient type, often tailored to specific crop demands.
Once minerals are mined, they are processed as powder or granulated before being shipped worldwide for mixing. Blending facilities may either be owned by the manufacturers, wholesalers or by separate entities. The blending and warehousing companies range in size from small rural co-ops with less than five employees to major wholesalers with brand name fertilizer products. A variety of retailers exist to support farmers, landscapers and household consumers of fertilizers.
Borate consumption has been increasing in past years and is expected to continue, supported by glass and ceramic market demands in Asia and South America. China’s low-grade boron reserves will continue to drive imports from neighboring countries as well as the United States. European regulatory changes in the building industry are also expected to fuel demand for borates for fiberglass insulation. Emerging agriculture behemoths like India are expected to augment established micronutrient markets.
As the fourth largest economy based on purchasing power parity, India is touted as the world fastest growing major economy. Agriculture is the main occupation in India, providing approximately 30-50pc of the total national income, ranging from traditional village farming to modern agriculture.
Borates are not produced in India, thus imports of borax have been increasing significantly since 2012. Domestic consumption for industries such as glass and porcelain, medicine and other commercial uses are imported as crude borates and refined at Indian manufacturing plants. Boron for fertilizer use is primarily imported from Turkey, USA, Peru, Bolivia and China.
According to Indian government resources, India imports increased by 18.5pc from previous years:
- natural borates- 44,856 tonnes
- sodium borates- 63,425 tonnes
- others borates- 4,494 tonnes
Turkey is the largest supplier, followed by USA, Spain and Bolivia. The port of Khava Sheva Sea received the majority of shipments (93pc) for natural boron followed by the ports of Mundra (3.6pc) and Kolkata Sea (3pc). The port of Chennai Sea accounted for 49pc of imported sodium borates and other borates followed by Nhava Sheva Sea (21pc) and Vizac Sea (20.6pc). Borates are not produced in India, thus imports have been increasing
World production and reserves
Mineral commodity estimates place the world reserves of boron at 210 million tonnes. Turkey, USA, Argentina, Chile, China, Peru and Russia all have sizeable resources. Experts predict these world resources are adequate for the foreseeable future. These reserves can primarily be found in three regions (see Map 1).
SOUTHWESTERN USA REGION: Boron, a small community on the edge of the Mojave Desert, symbolically named for the mineral it produces, is home to the largest borax mine in the world. Consequently, it also holds one of the largest reserves.
SOUTH-CENTRAL ASIA REGION: The Alpide belt of southern Asia holds viable deposits of boron reserves. Extending a large part of the Asian continent it contains primarily tincal and kernite. The highest quality boron reserves are located in Emet, Kirka, Bigadic regions of Turkey. About 70pc of all Turkish deposits are colemanites.
SOUTH-AMERICAN ANDEAN REGION: The third largest region is found high in the Andes Mountains of Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. International companies like UlexAndes, have developed processes to transport high quality ulexite by rail from high-altitude Playas (4200-4700 meters above seal level) to production factories for further refining. Turkey and the United States are the major producers of borates, each estimating over 1.3 million annual tonnes. Argentina and Chile are the next closest, producing more than 0.5 million annual tonnes. Peru, China, Russia and Bolivia are all comparable with productions less than 0.25 million annual tonnes.
The value of boron
Commonly referenced as ‘boron’, elemental boron does not have any commercial value, nor does it occur in nature in an elemental state. However, when combined with oxygen and other elements to form boric acid or borates, it becomes quite valuable and commercially important. Boron compounds are priced and sold based on their boric oxide content (B2O3) and the presence/absence of ore, calcium and sodium. Primarily mined in arid, volcanic geographical regions from Playa’s (dried up alkaline lakes), the four borates are:
- Tincal (hydrated calcium/magnesium borate hydroxide),
- Kernite (hydrated sodium borate),
- Colemanite (hydrated calcium borate)
- Ulexite (hydrated sodium calcium borate hydroxide).
Borates have hundreds of applications, however an overwhelming majority is used by the chemical and glass industries (93pc) for glass, ceramics, detergents, and fire retardants. Boron consumption as an agriculture component occupies a small percentage of the worldwide borates market.
Agronomists prefer ulexite as their boron ore source due to its two boron compounds of sodium borate (40pc) and calcium borate (60pc). Because boron fertilizer is mineralized to a very soluble anionic form, this combination of fast acting sodium borate and slow releasing calcium borate ideally aligns with crop growing demands.
Boron in agriculture
Boron is an essential micronutrient, recognized as a critical component in plant cell walls and reproduction. Boron deficiencies are widespread and affect numerous types of crops and regions. Because boron is highly mobile in soil, and poorly mobilized within the plant, a constant supply of available boron is required to prevent deficiencies; the impact on crop health and yield well respected in modern agriculture.
Lack of awareness regarding the impact of soil testing and intensive agriculture in India has contributed to widespread deficiencies in micronutrients, primarily boron and zinc. India also continues to struggle with incentives for investment in modernization, adequate transportation and agriculture infrastructure, thus diminishing the potential of global efficiencies and standardizations.
Recognizing the role agriculture plays on regional economies, the Government of India has responded by focusing on strengthening the market infrastructure including: increasing national soil test labs, increasing mechanization and promoting micro-irrigation. In addition, each year the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) publishes nutrient subsidy guidelines. In order to encourage the use of micronutrients, fertilizers fortified with Zinc and Boron qualify for government subsidies under the Nutrient Based Subsidy (NBS) policy. The NBS is then passed on to farmers through the fertilizer industry.
Boron manufactures are in a race to keep up with the science driven by the demands of modern-day agriculture. Because boron (B) and zinc (Zn) are the two most deficient micronutrients, the logical question becomes: how do we make the delivery of these critical nutrients efficient. In India, where mechanization is still playing catch-up to the modern world, the importance of an easy, reliable compound becomes obvious.
Because refined sodium borate (borax) and boric acid are highly water-soluble, they are readily available to plants once applied in solutions or dry blends. However, if application timing doesn’t coincide with plant utilization, the boron can easily be leached from the soil. Compounding application accuracy, traditional fertilizers struggle with achieving uniform micronutrient distribution.
Emerging partnerships between Indian companies and boron manufactures that specialize in high-quality, customizable fertilizer compounding are becoming valuable competitors in the Indian agriculture marketplace. Gaining market share for their ability to provide high quality, customizable boron fertilizer suppliers complement ongoing governmental efforts. Forward looking companies such as UlexAndes and EcoFusion who can combine efficiently sourced high quality ulexite from South America with agronomic expertise and market presence, are strategically positioned to compete in this highly competitive marketplace.