Suspension at South32’s GEMCO manganese ore unit rewrites demand patterns in Asia

The suspension of South32’s manganese ore operations at Groote Eylandt Mining Co (GEMCO) in Australia has been changing demand patterns among manganese ore buyers in Asia and this will benefit other manganese ore miners, market participants said on Wednesday April 24

Manganese smelters in Asia have been looking for alternative supplies of manganese ore since late March, according to market sources.

Manganese ore supplier South32 on March 18 announced the suspension of operations at GEMCO after tropical cyclone Megan made landfall in the country’s Northern Territory.

Around a month after the suspension, on April 21, the mining giant announced in its quarterly report that GEMCO export sales and wharf operations could remain in suspension until the third quarter of the company’s current financial year, which would be January-March 2025.

GEMCO is a significant supply source for Asian manganese smelters. Its output includes silicon-manganese, ferro-manganese and electrolyzed manganese, which products go to countries such as China, India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Buyers look for alternative supply, adjust ore blends

Manganese smelters in Asia have been looking for other manganese ore supplies to offset the loss of GEMCO material, or have been making adjustments to reduce the amount of high-grade manganese ore in their production blends, industry sources said.

Regions which do not have manganese ore stocks, or have low port stocks, must find substitutes or stop production.

“Our plant has been starting to inquire with a Gabonese manganese ore miner,” one smelter in Southeast Asia said, “but we are also evaluating the economics if we use a smaller share of high-grade ore and more lower-grade materials.”

Some end-users had previously told Fastmarkets that they typically blend high-grade manganese ore with lower-grade South African ore to produce silicon-manganese.

“I heard that a manganese smelter in Southeast Asia, which mainly uses Australian manganese ore, has announced that it will halt production soon,” an international manganese ore seller source said.

Buyers in South Korea and Japan were said to be keeping an eye on Chinese manganese ore port stocks, due to the high availability of manganese ore at nearby Chinese ports, market sources said.

“South Korea and Japan reacted quickly to the suspension announced in March,” the international supplier said, “but now, Chinese portside sellers are also concerned about the reduced supply. They have stopped quoting offers to the market, so it is not a solution for buyers in South Korea or Japan.”

Due to the suspension at GEMCO, which will last longer than many in the market expected, Chinese manganese smelters have started to look for more materials, despite existing high port stocks of both high-grade manganese ore and lower-grade materials, market sources told Fastmarkets.

According to a port contact, there were 1.80 million tonnes of South African manganese ore stocks, 780,000 tonnes of Australian ore and 820,000 tonnes of Gabonese ore at Tianjin port on April 22.

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Opportunities for other miners, but not easy to fill market gap

News of the estimated one-year loss of GEMCO supply fired-up manganese ore market prices, to the benefit of existing suppliers, due to the increased competition. It also sparked market chatter about the re-emergence of miners that had previously stopped or reduced output, market sources said.

One mining market participant said that while the bulk of GEMCO material went to China, buyers in other regions would also need to replace that feed.

“They were supplying [other] regions and now those places have to buy elsewhere,” the same producer source said. “[Those] buyers have been trying to secure ore, supporting higher prices.”

The prices of both high-grade and lower-grade manganese ore have been rising in recent weeks, after Asian buyers accepted higher offers.

The increases continued in the week ended April 19. Fastmarkets calculated its weekly manganese ore high grade index, cif Tianjin, at $4.86 per dry metric tonne unit (dmtu) on April 19. This was up by 1.25% from $4.80 per dmtu on April 12 and by 13.29% from $4.29 per dmtu on April 5.

Fastmarkets’ weekly manganese ore index, 37% Mn, cif Tianjin, was calculated at $4.22 per dmtu on April 19. This was up by 0.24% from $4.21 per dmtu on April 12 and by 7.3% from $3.93 per dmtu on April 5.

“Even [as] the price of high-grade manganese ore from Gabon rises quickly, buyers in India conclude deals [equally] quickly,” a Malaysian smelter source said.

The higher manganese ore prices were also attractive to emerging miners which may resume production to secure market share, according to sector sources.

“I heard that miners in Brazil and Cote d’Ivoire are starting to quote to Chinese buyers,” a Chinese manganese ore trader contact said.

But there were still problems for these miners in entering the market quickly.

“Problems – such as whether smelting ovens can technically switch to other miners’ [product] and how long these emerging miners take to ramp-up operations – are still unpredictable,” the Chinese trader added.

“I know the deposit stopped producing early this year,” one contact said, whose company owns a manganese ore project in southern Australia, “and they haven’t decided to resume operations so far, but are keeping a close eye on the market demand and price movement.”

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