Mineral Resource of the Month: Tin

by U.S. Geological Survey
Wednesday, June 13, 2018

James F. Carlin Jr., a mineral commodity specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey, compiled the following information about tin, used in diverse consumer and industrial applications.

An old tin mine on the Cornwall coast in England. Historians think that tin from Cornwall was in such demand 3,500 years ago that Phoenicians traveled to the region to obtain the metal. Credit: ©N P Holmes, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Tin was one of the earliest-known metals. Because of its hardening effect on copper, tin was used in bronze implements as early as 3500 B.C. Bronze, a copper-tin alloy that can be sharpened and is hard enough to retain a cutting edge, was used during the Bronze Age in construction tools as well as weapons for hunting and war. The geographical separation between tin-producing and tin-consuming nations greatly influenced the patterns of early trade routes. Historians think that as early as 1500 B.C., Phoenicians traveled by sea to the Cornwall district of England to obtain tin. The pure metal was not used unalloyed until about 600 B.C.

Tin is a relatively scarce element with an abundance in the Earth’s crust of about 2 parts per million (ppm), compared with 94 ppm for zinc, 63 ppm for copper, and 12 ppm for lead. Tin is preferentially concentrated by magmatic differentiation processes and shows an affinity for granitic rocks or their extrusive equivalents. The dominant mineral of commercial importance as a source of tin is cassiterite; small quantities of tin are recovered from the complex sulfides, such as stannite and canfieldite.

Principal deposits are scattered irregularly along a belt surrounding the Pacific Ocean. Most of the world’s tin is produced from placer deposits, many of which are in Southeast Asia. In 2010, China was the leading tin producer with 44 percent of world output, followed by Indonesia (21 percent), and Peru (14 percent).

Over the past 100 years, at least three attempts were made to control the world’s tin supply, demand and price through agreements among the leading tin-producing and -consuming countries.

In 2009, three countries consumed more than 50 percent of the world’s tin — China, the United States and Japan. A significant amount of the tin consumed in China and Japan was in the form of solder (often an alloy of lead and tin), which was used in the electronics industry. In the United States, more than a quarter of the tin usage is in electrical applications (principally in solders). Because of tin’s resistance to corrosion, it is also widely used in cans and containers, construction and transportation. In addition, for centuries, tin has had a special affiliation with glass making. Today, tin oxide is sprayed on glass bottles on the assembly line to prevent abrasion; indium-tin oxide is coated on office window glass to impart thermal properties; and most flat glass is made by floating it over a vat of molten tin (called the Pilkington process). Indium-tin oxide is also used as an essential component of flat panel display screens.

For more information on tin and other mineral resources, visit http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals.

Tin production and consumption:

World production of primary refined tin was 333,000 metric tons in 2010.

In 2010, 18 countries produced tin from mine sources. The top five producers were China, Indonesia, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil.

Tin has not been mined or smelted in the United States since 1993 and 1989, respectively, so all U.S. tin supplies come from imports and recycled scrap.

Fun facts:

Tin’s atomic symbol, Sn, comes from stannum, the Latin word for tin.

The element tin has worked its way into common usage in the English language: it sounds tinny; the tin man; a tin lizzy; a tin ear.

Tin chemical compounds have been a leading ingredient in toothpaste.

Plastic bottles often contain about 1 percent tin because a tin stabilizer is used in their manufacture.

Although tin is an ancient metal, its use in solders for electronics gives it an important position in today’s high-tech world.

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