LOS ANGELES Titanium sponge imports were flat in 2012, but a decline in fourth-quarter arrivals appeared to signal a period of lackluster domestic demand which has continued into this year.
The United States imported 33,600 tonnes of titanium sponge in 2012, down only slightly from 33,800 tonnes in 2011, according to data released recently by the U.S. Geological Survey. However, sponge imports reached 6,800 tons in the fourth quarter, down 23.3 percent from the previous quarter and down 31.7 percent from the year-ago period.
Buyers in late 2011 were scrambling to line up sponge for the coming year amid sharp rises in the cost of rutile feedstock, but the situation had changed dramatically as early as mid-2012, as falling scrap prices made secondary material more competitive against virgin raw material. Market sources noted that U.S. sponge buyers at the time were having second thoughts about the amount of sponge they needed in 2012 (amm.com, Oct. 5
People were taking any steps they could to push out or cancel sponge in order to reduce their reliance on virgin material, an industry source said. The source and other observers agreed that imports will likely fall this year from 2012.
U.S. sponge production reached 19 million tonnes last year, up from 14 million tonnes the year before, according to an industry estimate.
Japan was the largest supplier of titanium sponge in 2012, accounting for 18,900 tonnes, or 56.3 percent of the years total imports. It was followed by Kazakhstan, which supplied an estimated 8,030 tonnes, or 23.9 percent of the years total, and China, which supplied an estimated 3,510 tonnes of material.
Japanese imports rose 17.4 percent from the previous year, solidifying that countrys role as the top overseas source for U.S. sponge consumers. Kazakhstan, once the largest supplier, saw imports fall 6.7 percent year over year.