Ilmenite is weakly magnetic, with a weak response to a hand magnet.
Although there appears evidence of the complete range of mineral chemistries in the (Fe,Mg,Mn,Ti)O3 system naturally occurring on Earth, the vast bulk of ilmenites are restricted to close to the ideal FeTiO3 composition, with minor mole percentages of Mn and Mg. A key exception is in the ilmenites of kimberlites where the mineral usually contains major amounts of geikielite molecules, and in some highly differentiated felsic rocks ilmenites may contain significant amounts of pyrophanite molecules.
At higher temperatures it has been demonstrated there is a complete solid solution between ilmenite and hematite. There is a miscibility gap at lower temperatures, resulting in a coexistence of these two minerals in rocks but no solid solution. This coexistence may result in exsolution lamellae in cooled ilmenites with more iron in the system than can be homogeneously accommodated in the crystal lattice.
Altered ilmenite forms the mineral leucoxene, an important source of titanium in heavy mineral sands ore deposits. Leucoxene is a typical component of altered gabbro and diorite and is generally indicative of ilmenite in the unaltered rock.
Magnesian ilmenite is indicative of kimberlitic paragenesis and forms part of the MARID association of minerals (mica-amphibole-rutile-ilmenite-diopside) assemblage of glimmerite xenoliths. Managaniferous ilmenite is found in granitic rocks and also in carbonatite intrusions where it may also contain anomalous niobium.
Many mafic igneous rocks contain grains of intergrown magnetite and ilmenite, formed by the oxidation of ulvospinel. Ilmenite also occurs as discrete grains, typically with some hematite in solid solution, and complete solid solution exists between the two minerals at temperatures above about 950°C.
The majority of the ilmenite mined is used as a raw material for pigment production. The product is titanium dioxide, which is ground into a fine powder and is a highly white substance used as a base in high-quality paint, paper and plastics applications.
The majority of consumption of titanium dioxide pigment is centralised in North America and Europe, which between them account for around 50% of world demand. Indo-Chinese demand is however rapidly growing and may eventually eclipse Western consumption.
World consumption rises approximately 5% per annum to 8% per annum, with demand growth most strongly centred in Asian economies. World demand in 2004 was 335,000 tonnes of TiO2 units, representing about 2.4 million tonnes of ilmenite.
Ilmenite is converted into titanium dioxide via the sulfate process. Sulfate process plants must utilise low-vanadium ilmenite, as vanadium is a penalty element. Titanium dioxide pigment can also be produced from higher titanium feedstocks such as rutile and leucoxene via a chloride acid process.
Raw ilmenite is refined by decreasing the iron content. Carbon (anthracite) is used to convert some of the iron oxide in the ilmenite to metallic iron. The products of this process are molten iron (pig iron) and a slag rich in titanium. A related process is the Becher process.
Ilmenite sand is also used as a sandblasting agent in the cleaning of diecasting dies.
|Estimated titanium ore production|
in thousands of tons for 2006
according to U.S. Geological Survey
Australia was the world's largest producer and exporter of ilmenite ore in 2005-2006, with 1.1 million tonnes, followed by South Africa (952Kt), Canada (809Kt), China (~400Kt) and Norway (380Kt) 1
Development of large mineral sands operations in Sénégal, Côte d'Ivoire, Madagascar and Mozambique will see extensive supplies of ilmenite, rutile, zircon and leucoxene reach world markets in coming years. This is reflected in the table at right in parentheses. This additional supply of ilmenite and titanium feedstock, approximating 1.5 million tonnes per annum, is in excess to world demand growth of 350Kt per annum.
The Balla Balla magnetitite-iron-titanium-vanadium ore deposit, in the Pilbara of Western Australia, contains ~600 million tonnes of magnetite-ilmenite cumulate ore horizon grading 58% Fe, 14% TiO2 and 0.8% V2O5, one of the richest magnetite-ilmenite ore bodies in Australia. The ore deposit is scheduled to be mined in mid-2009, to produce in excess of 480,000t per annum of ilmenite product.
Major mineral sands operations include: Richards Bay, South Africa; Coburn, WIM 50, Douglas, Pooncarrie, Murray Basin, Eneabba in Australia, Indian Rare Earths(IRE),VV Mineral in India.