It’s not often that a company supplies a product that is both essential to sustaining life and modern living. Borates are key ingredients in ceramics, fiberglass, detergents, agricultural micronutrients and wood preservation products; they’re also necessary for plant growth and part of a healthy human diet. In short, as the world’s leading supplier of refined borates, one of the keys to Rio Tinto Borax’s strength lies in the fact that its products have many uses and great potential.
Among the company’s relatively small global work force of 1,500 are acknowledged world leaders in the handling, processing and use of borates, as well as original research on borate properties and applications. Although borates have hundreds of established uses, Borax is poised to expand its business with several promising new applications, showing there is growth to be had in a relatively mature market.
Borax operates five borate mines: one in Boron, Calif. – one of only two world-class borate deposits on the planet – and four in Argentina. Borates are essential micronutrients for plants, and nutritionally important for people, who consume between three to five milligrams of boron each day through a wide variety of healthy foods. They are also essential to many industries.
The single-largest end use of the company’s products is insulation fiberglass, which comprises 17 percent of its sales. Textile fiberglass, which is used to create everything from circuit boards to surfboards, makes up 15 percent of Borax’s sales, and ceramic applications comprise 14 percent of sales. In addition, detergents, agricultural micronutrients and heat-resistant borosilicate glass each contribute eight percent to the company’s sales. The remainder goes to a vast array of industries that produce everything from nuclear protection shields to personal care products.
“For some uses, like agriculture, there are simply no substitutes – boron is an essential micronutrient for plants,” says David Peever, chief commercial officer of Rio Tinto Borax. “Borates are also essential for modern living. They have the power to bleach or buffer, diffuse or vitrify, rust-proof metal or flame-proof plastics. Their ability to absorb neutrons has applications ranging from safeguarding nuclear reactors to treating cancer patients.
Boron is one of the 109 natural elements, but it does not exist by itself in nature. It combines with oxygen and other elements to form boric acid or inorganic salts called borates. Despite the millions of tons of industrial borates mined, processed and distributed around the world every year, far larger quantities of boron are transferred around the planet by way of natural forces. Rain, volcanic activity, condensation and other atmospheric activities redistribute at least twice as much boron as all commercial practices combined.
“The nature and design of borates represents vast potential for new applications and markets, and vast potential to raise the standard of living,” Peever says. “But even for a company with more than a century of original research into borate properties and applications, tapping that potential is no easy task.”
Borax sets itself apart from other borate operations in that it provides unparalleled technical support on borate use to customers, devotes considerable resources to researching and developing new uses for borates, and is committed to measuring and improving the sustainability of its products and practices.
“It is our job to raise the standard,” Peever says. “To sell solutions, not products; to understand how our products affect human health and the environment; to effectively persuade investors that we operate in a socially responsible manner, whether those investors are shareholders or simply sharing a future dependent on limited natural resources. This is a balancing act. As market leader, we see it as our job to continually redefine the standards by which we operate – both inside and outside of the company.
“The nature and design of borates represents vast potential for new applications and markets, and vast potential to raise the standard of living,” he continues. “But even for a company with more than a century of original research into borate properties and applications, tapping that potential is no easy task.”