Bismuth (symbol Bi) is a rare metallic element with a pinkish tinge. Bismuth has been known since ancient times, but it was confused with lead, tin, and zinc until the middle of the 18th century. Among the elements in the earth's crust, bismuth is ranked about 73rd in natural abundance. This makes bismuth about as rare as silver. Most industrial bismuth is obtained as a by-product of ore extraction.
Bismuth is useful for castings because of the unusual way that it expands after solidifying. Some of bismuth's alloys have unusually low melting points. Bismuth is one of the most difficult of all substances to magnetize. It tends to turn at right angles to a magnetic field. Because of this property, it is used in instruments for measuring the strength of magnetic fields.
Bismuth finds a wide variety of uses such as pharmaceutical compounds, ceramic glazes, crystal ware, and chemicals and pigments. Bismuth is found in household pharmaceuticals and is used to treat stomach ulcers. Bismuth is opaque to X-rays and can be used in fluoroscopy. Bismuth has also found new use as a nontoxic substitute for lead in various applications such as brass plumbing fixtures, crystal ware, lubricating greases, pigments, and solders. There has been environmental interest in the use of bismuth as a replacement for lead used in shot for waterfowl hunting and in fishing sinkers. Another use has been for galvanizing to improve drainage characteristics of galvanizing alloys. Zinc-bismuth alloys have the same drainage properties as zinc-lead without being as hazardous.
Prices - The average price of bismuth (99.99% pure) in the U.S. in 2006 (the latest data available) rose +29.8% to $4.63 per pound, up from $3.57 per pound in 2005. The increase is due primarily to the strengthening global economy over the past few years.
Supply - World mine production of bismuth in 2006 rose +5.6% to a new record high of 5,700 metric tons. The world's largest producer in 2006 was China with 53% of world production, followed by Mexico with 21%, Peru with 17%, and Canada with 3%. Regarding production of the refined metal, China had 71% of production, Mexico had 10%, Belgium had 7%, and Peru had 5% in 2006. The U.S. does not have any significant domestic refinery production of bismuth.
Demand - U.S. consumption of bismuth in 2006 fell -12.4% to 2,050 metric tons, down from the record high of 2,420 metric tons in 2004. Of that consumption, 45% went for metallurgical additives, 29% for fusible alloys, 25% for chemicals, and 1% for other uses.
Trade - U.S. imports of bismuth in 2006 fell 9.1% to 2,300 metric tons, down from last year's 8-year high. Of U.S. imports, 38% came from Belgium and 24% came from Mexico. U.S. exports of bismuth and alloys were very low in 2006 at 311 metric tons, but still up 119% from the 142 metric tons in 2005.