Iridium Key Features:
Iridium (Ir) belongs to the platinum group metals (PGMs: ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum) and is one of the rarest elements in the Earth’s crust. Distinctive properties include its resistance to chemical attack, excellent high-temperature characteristics, and stable electrical properties, which are exploited for industrial applications in the electronic, chemical, and automotive industries. Iridium is thus present as an impurity, or is found in alloys together with platinum, palladium, and rhodium in automobile catalytic converters. Iridium applications are critical for electronics and telecommunications systems, high-performance spark plugs, medical devices and Iridium-coated electrodes for maritime ballast systems. Iridium’s potential use in the production of ‘green’ hydrogen is a particular focus of investor interest.
- Electricals and Electronics
- Chemical Manufacturing
Key Producers of PGMs:
- Anglo American Platinum
- Impala Platinum
- Northam Platinum
- Norilsk Nickel
- Russian Platinum
Key End Markets:
Iridium is widely used in catalysts, organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) and 5G technologies. Its industrial applications exploit its high melting point, hardness and resistance to corrosion. These qualities make it especially sought after for mobile phones, where demand is soaring as 5G technology is rolled out; in hydrogen fuel cells; and potentially as a key component in the transition to electric vehicles. It has a niche role in helping disinfect water carried as ballast by ships, especially following the 2019 UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) agreement that requires ship operators to treat ballast water before it is discharged into the sea. Iridium crucible demand is supported by the use of lithium tantalate crystal material, used in surface acoustic wave (SAW) filters; these are widely used electronic components, in particular in smartphones. Also, Iridium tips for gasoline vehicle engine spark plugs offer a combination of longer lifetime and increased combustion efficiency, especially in the latest emission-efficient engines.
Global PGM reserves have remained relatively constant over the last decade, with a slight increase from 66,000 tonnes in 2010 to 69,000 tonnes in 2020, based on data from Statista, while 2019 worldwide Iridium production totaled 242,000 oz (6.8 tonnes). Within the Earth's crust, iridium is found at the highest concentrations in three types of geologic structure: igneous deposits (crustal intrusions from below), impact craters, and deposits reworked from one of the former structures.
The largest known primary reserves are in the Bushveld igneous complex in South Africa, (near the largest-known impact crater, the Vredefort crater), though the large copper/nickel deposits near Norilsk in Russia, and the Sudbury Basin (also an impact crater) in Canada, are also significant sources. Smaller reserves are found in the United States. Iridium is also found in secondary deposits, combined with platinum and other PGMs in alluvial deposits.
The May 2021 PGM market report from Johnson Matthey mentioned that industrial Iridium demand patterns may have played a role in the recent price rally, even though those figures do not show a dramatic increase in demand this year. Johnson Matthey expects Iridium consumption to rise by 13% to 267,000 oz in 2021, within the historical range of demand for this metal; assuming supply rebounds as anticipated, the market should not be in a large fundamental deficit this year.
Johnson Matthey noted that the iridium market is exceptionally small and illiquid, but unlike rhodium and ruthenium it has no recent history of extreme price movements. The price traded below US$1,000/oz during 2014–17, reflecting periodic selling of producer inventories that left the market well supplied. Since then, a series of deficits has gradually consumed available above-ground stocks, leading to upward pressure on the price.
These price gains were slow and moderate during 2017–19, but accelerated abruptly in late 2020, as outages at Anglo American Platinum’s converter plant (ACP) coincided with a post-Covid recovery in demand. The price reached a record $3,050/oz at the end of 2020, as supply was limited, and then $4,000/oz in January, pausing for breath briefly during February. In May 2021 the price had stabilised at around $6,300/oz – by far the highest price ever seen for this metal.
The unusual price movements primarily reflect a temporary lack of liquidity in the Iridium market following the ACP outages. The processing pipeline for the minor PGMs is unusually long: several months may pass between mining the metals, and final refining. Availability should improve this year and next, as Anglo American Platinum treats a large backlog of semi-processed PGM. The 2021 Heraeus Precious Metals Forecast expects the iridium price to be between $2,000/oz and $5,000/oz during 2021.
The 2021 Heraeus Precious Metals Forecast predicts a modest Iridium surplus this year, as supply recovers more strongly than demand. It anticipates mine output in South Africa to be at normal levels this year, while refined output should be boosted by the processing of stocks built up while Anglo’s ACP was being repaired. It expects strong demand for Iridum worldwide, as several sectors of the electrical market return to growth with the 5G network roll-out. More widespread adoption of 5G phones should help smartphone sales return to growth this year, supporting capacity expansion for lithium tantalate production using iridium crucibles. Early estimates suggest 5G phone sales could come close to doubling this year. The 2021 Heraeus Precious Metals Forecast projects that electrochemical demand will recover as economic growth picks up and improves the outlook for end-use sectors.
The global 5G services market was valued at US$41.5bn in 2020 by Grand View Research, who expects it to grow at a 46.2% CAGR over 2021-28. 5G wireless mobile services enable a fully mobile and connected environment, by delivering a wide range of use cases and business models to consumers. Moreover, the faster data speeds and extremely low latency it offers enhance user experience in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) gaming, seamless video calling, and ultra-high definition (UHD) videos, among others. Finally, growing demand for high-speed data connectivity for unified Internet of Things (IoT) applications, such as smart home energy management, should propel the adoption of these services over the coming years. As a key input in the production of smartphones, the coming global roll-out of 5G should provide strong support for iridium prices.
- Demand for Iridium Worldwide
- Global PGM Reserves
- Heraeus Precious The Platinum Standard 2021
- Johnson Matthey Pgm market report May 2021
- Heraeus Precious Forecast 2021
- Critical materials for water electrolysis at the example of the energy transition in Germany
- Grand View Research: 5G Services Market Size
- Is iridium demand a potential bottleneck in the realization of large-scale PEM water electrolysis?
- Iridium – Properties – Price – Applications – Production